posted 1 Jan 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 4
Turtles all the way down and all the way up
At KM Europe 2000, Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe presented a keynote speech on the future of knowledge management in the new economy. The following article, which is concluded in the next issue of Knowledge Management, includes the main text of what proved to be an extremely well-received presentation.
Allow me to un-ground you, and take you with me even beyond the proverbial 30,000 feet, to where there is even less oxygen. Let’s then look down at what we’ve done in knowledge management and what most of us would like to do in the future, and see whether it stands the test of time. Whether what we think the discipline of knowledge management holds in stock is indeed good enough to create superior value in the years ahead.
When squirming around in those lofty heights, each and every one of you will be confronted with what we might call ‘philosophical’ views and opinions - the kind of stuff that we don’t have much time to spend on when we’re down there where the real work is. And here is something I learned from a French movie by Eric Rohmer that I recently saw: A philosophy teacher is asked how she gets anything useful done during her philosophy classes, given that everybody has his or her own philosophy. Her reply is simple: "I am careful", she says, "to add to the picture and not to destroy my students’ philosophies. Whatever philosophical thought I leave with them must align with what they already feel and believe."My key messages
Knowledge management as a discipline is coming of age. It’s time to review the impact we have made, and to critically assess our methods and our approach. As the French say, ‘Qui aime bien, châtie bien’: what you really love, you will critisise well.
I will argue in favour of a few key messages. They are as follows:
Let me begin with a list of obvious successes of knowledge management over the past half decade:
So there is a lot to be proud of, after a relatively short amount of time: Most meaningful long-term studies of organisational behaviour theory last three times longer than it has taken KM to gain world-wide attention.
To understand why I think we are indeed at a turning point, perhaps because KM has been quite successful, I need to put these successes into a new context. What do we mean when we speak of a ‘new economy’? I prefer the simple, but consequential definition given a couple of years ago by Kevin Kelly in his book New Rules for the New Economy. He states: "This new economy has three distinguishing characteristics: It is global. It favours intangible things - ideas, information, and relationships. And it is intensely inter-linked. These three attributes produce a new type of marketplace and society, one that is rooted in ubiquitous electronic networks."
We immediately get a taste for how profoundly the new economy has altered the scene for knowledge management, as well as for any other management science. To begin with, messages that were handed out a few years ago like water in the desert, suddenly don’t sound that exciting anymore.
Once the news is out that the economy favours intangible assets, there is really little more to say about that. What is immediately of interest is the character of these attributes, and how they interrelate in the new marketplace that we see emerging. And here knowledge management has little new to tell. Let’s look at the attributes in turn.
Globality is poorly understood. Everybody is aware of the struggle between local and global aspects - of culture, of the environment, and of organisations. Multinationals literally oscillate between decentralisation and centralisation. Communication technology is said to benefit the local agents - because it gives them access to the centre and other local agents, and it is also used as an excuse to eliminate local agents, because holding data and information centrally is so much more cost-effective. Likewise, everybody agrees that there are virtually no truly global organisations, only organisations with global presence. The rise of a new type of retailer, like Amazon.com, has complicated the issue even further. The point is that KM has not even begun to seriously address the issue of globality, which is central to KM implementations - in both multinationals and locally operating firms.
Looking at intangible assets, nowhere does the battle of words rage stronger. Yes, knowledge and information are firmly on the mental map of most organisations. And we have an understanding that knowledge is context-dependent - hence we learned to distinguish between tacit and explicit knowledge. Some even equate knowledge management with the theory and practice of conversion between tacit and explicit knowledge.
Take the basic distinction between knowledge and information. We all probably feel that we intuitively understand how they are different. When learning how to ride a bicycle for example, there is a lot of information available - about the optimum balance, about the different muscle groups involved, and so forth. But in order to know how to ride a bicycle, you don’t need any of this information. In fact, you most likely don’t have it. Much has been written about this distinction, and problems of a similar kind have occupied thinkers throughout human history. Nevertheless, you will find that KM practitioners often use the terms knowledge and information interchangeably.
Which opens the door to thinking that information management and knowledge management is pretty much the same thing. And if you look at what many so-called knowledge management companies are selling, you will find that they present what is actually a document management solution, packaged as a knowledge management solution.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against document management, or information management - in fact, quite the opposite. Rather, I am arguing against the trend of treating each discipline the same, as if the difference didn’t really matter after all. And I should say that I have been guilty of this myself in my own writing.
I think it is fair to say that thick fog still surrounds a lot of our terminology. And this is not just a war of words, because we’re up against a lot of prejudices here. After all, the current real economic world is used to think of itself as based on hard, tangible assets, not on intangible assets. And while companies start to accept that continuous innovation and managing knowledge are very important indeed, at the end of the day they still consider knowledge management a luxury, not something that keeps executives up at night.
To finish my brief discussion of the characteristics of the new economy and what KM has to offer it at the moment, let’s look at interlinked-ness, or connectivity. This has become another commonplace, and another one where it is easy to get mixed up - in this case with the importance of infrastructure, which is widely regarded as a technology issue. The hidden assumption is that a high degree of connectivity alone will do the job; will magically lead to more sharing and more re-use of knowledge. We all know that’s not true, but somehow we still look at connections made via computer with different eyes, and we nurse the hope that it will all be different this time.
Kevin Kelly states that the three attributes, described above, produce a new type of marketplace and society - something that we’ve witnessed over the past two or three years. These attributes can be stated, in generalised terms, as the new impact of context, content and connectivity on our culture. Knowledge management has something to say in each of these areas, but we haven’t been clear enough.
And if our thinking is not clear, how can we hope to communicate clearly? Knowledge management has the potential to be more than a potpourri of terms and methods, but it currently does not live up to this potential.KM must change the way it looks at its past, present and future
To realise this potential, KM must change the way it looks at its past, its present, and its future. Regarding the past, take the example of comparisons with other management methods, like TQM (Total Quality Management), or BPR (Business Process Re-engineering), or even with related disciplines, like competitive intelligence. While these comparisons seem suitable at first glance, they actually are not.
There is a reason that we associate a higher potential for change with a discipline that refers to ‘knowledge’, to one of the highest achievements of individual and societal activity. To begin with, TQM and BPR are non-integrative, they are management techniques that live off selection and restriction, not integration. Competitive intelligence on the other hand, is an off-shoot of business intelligence, which is a civil version of military intelligence - not without merits, but very limited in scope, and exclusive by its very nature.
So the first thing we must do is assume a different heritage. I will later get into more detail, but for now let me remind you that there are three very distinguished candidates among the sciences - physics, biology, and psychology. The sciences associated with the world of matter, of life, and of mind are all going through a similar process; they are trying to overcome the splits between each other and within themselves, to become more integrative, more holistic. To name only two examples of integration within: The integration in physics between Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics, spanning a period of over 200 years of intense research; and the integration of Freudian psychoanalytic theory with Ancient Eastern theories of consciousness.
Now, about the present. I have already mentioned that I think KM terminology lacks clarity - and in particular in areas that are core to the new economy. But I believe the problem lies deeper. To support my point, I want to give you a list of currently unresolved issues in knowledge management.
Let me start with three truly ‘big questions’ for knowledge managers:
These are some of the big questions that plague us, whether we are aware of it or not. Many of you will immediately see the connection with other philosophical issues that have been discussed throughout the history of ideas. There are of course the usual simple cures; either pretend that these are non-questions, that they don’t matter for doing practically useful things. Alternatively, by pretending, in a mechanistic-reductionist fashion, that the world is just a giant, complicated sort of machine - that there is one big formula, and that it is only a matter of time until we’ve figured it out.
In the first case, if you consider these non-questions, you believe that questions such as these only hold us down, stop us from making faster progress, like mind-acrobatics. In the second case, if you believe that we only need to figure out the underlying rules, you will think that the answers for all three questions are obvious.
There is a second category of open issues, all of which usually come in the form of choices, or alternatives that are, if not mutually exclusive, hardly overlapping:
Many of these issues are ‘hot’ in the sense that they are currently debated, and most of you will have an opinion one way or the other. Let me point out that many of these issues are also hot in discussions about old versus new economy - for example the dominance of networks over hierarchy, or the re-definition of competitors as partners, collaborators, and customers.
To put these questions in the right context is not an academic issue, but lies at the basis of how we view, for example, the chances of dotcom companies to survive, or which strategic alliances we pursue, or how we think about customer information as a form of intellectual capital.
One way in which knowledge management needs to change here and now is by accepting that the complexity of these questions requires that we focus more on integration of issues, and on transcending polarities, instead of thinking that there always needs to be one - and only one - answer, which is how most of us have been brought up in business. Which is also why we are often unwilling to deal with uncertainty by leaving decisions open, and by designing more flexible environments around great challenges.
Besides deciding on open issues, I also believe that knowledge managers need to work on their ability to prepare and conduct effective interventions. Such interventions include a series of processes, such as: Analysis of the situation, confrontation with the agents, synthesis of the analysis and the results of the confrontation, change, and then analysis again to review the change.
In my experience, to effectively carry out this process poses common issues for many KM practitioners today. We need to raise the standard of analysis, compared with analysis standards that are common in the modern social or natural sciences discourse. For example, in publications on KM, very few authors make use of the technique of cross reference or peer review - this makes it easy for outsiders to enter the field, but it lowers the overall quality of contributions.
Regarding the problem of confrontation - here we certainly need better techniques and training, but also a different approach. Implementing knowledge management frequently raises issues in organisations that require a confrontation with managers to get resolved. Knowledge managers, often with backgrounds in IT or information management, tend to be too isolated in the organisation to face confrontation alone, and too isolated to effectively synthesise the results for change. And if their involvement in the implementation is bound to a technology implementation lifecycle, then they won’t stay around long enough to follow up on change with analysis and further recommendations. Instead of addressing the CEO or other top management, like the CFO, knowledge managers seem still to be more comfortable talking to CIOs - an important, but limited audience.
If you have stayed with me so far, you may agree that knowledge management holds a number of considerable challenges for us, and that we may have to improve our methodology, and possibly our whole approach to both the theory and practice of KM in order to do them justice. Moreover, while many of these challenges are long-standing, a number of them attract considerably more attention at present, as we seem to be moving from an old into a new economy situation. KMReference
1. In fact, the fact that this skill set is not very well defined, and the absence of a professional body, seems to work rather in favour of KM - it stops other disciplines from ‘closing the books’ over the KM issue. CI professionals, for example, feel on the whole rather worried about whether or not KM will encroach on their (commercial and mental) territory.
This concluding part of this article will be printed in the next edition of Knowledge Management.
Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe is knowledge manager at Shell International. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org