posted 1 Apr 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 7
Knowledge Management, a foreign
As Jon Goldberg shows, even some of the oldest traditions use a communication system that works effectively without the need for any supporting technology. Investment in technology is fair enough if companies want to keep up with the inevitable force of change, but as this article shows, KM success really lies in investment in the individual.
In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh lies Haridwar, one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism. There, pilgrims go to immerse the ashes of their dearly departed into the life-blood of mother India, the Ganges. For thousands of years this ritual has continued and, with little doubt, it will continue for thousands more. As interesting as this is, it does not seem to be very useful to the average Chief Knowledge Officer. However, in conjunction with the ritual immersion of ashes, there exists an excitingly elegant, non-technological knowledge management process.
The pilgrims coming to Hadiwar are obviously very concerned about both the past and future of their families. One aspect of this concern is the recording of genealogical events such as births, deaths or marriages. With nearly 1 billion persons, India has a lot of family history to cope with. In the west, a rising interest in genealogy has spurred the development of numerous societies, software packages and web-sites. But what is a simple Hindu family to do today (let alone one thousand years ago) with at best, only ink and paper. The solution that has evolved shows how order can be brought to a seemingly chaotic environment through the use of a sophisticated system to manage knowledge.
Each family that arrives in Hadiwar has a scribe assigned to them; not just any scribe, but a family of scribes that goes back, and hopefully forward with the families whose histories they keep. This is all well and good until one realises that 500 years ago you could not just ring up your holy man and tell him you were coming for dinner. Even today, most of the scribes do not have phones let alone e-mail. Moreover, a younger member of the mourning family probably does not know the name or location of this scribe, and probably has never been to Hadiwar. So how does a mourner, newly arrived in this bustling town contact their scribe? The scribes of Hadiwar are a self-organising Knowledge Management system. They have brought their own order out of chaos.
When you arrive in Hadiwar, you simply tell the nearest scribe your family name and they point you in the direction to where your family's keeper should be. There are too many scribes for them to know exactly who yours is, but they can get you started. As you continue in the right direction, the directions get more and more detailed until you arrive at your scribe's doorstep. It is like a verbal Global Positioning System. When you finally meet with your scribe he will have documents and genealogical trees that can date your family back hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years. And, for a modest fee he will inscribe your familiy's most recent events into his books. Bill Gates and Andy Grove eat your hearts out -a computer without Microsoft Windows(tm) or an Intel Processor!
So where is this leading? The point is, technology in and of itself will not make knowledge management systems work. Success or failure depends on aligning the business needs with the most appropriate solution possible. And given that at least 50% of IT projects never deliver all their stated benefits, the choice of technologies, especially in an areas as far reaching as knowledge management should be a careful one. Successful knowledge management relies on three pillars for success:
|Strategy - Where do we want to go?|
|Systems - What tools will take us there?|
|Culture - Why are we going in the first place? Implementing only two of these pillars severely limits the effectiveness of the activities.|
In the case of Hadiwar the strategy is to create a self-funding, flexible means of maintaining family histories. The system is the self-organising group of scribes. The culture is the Indian Hindu one, in which family is all important. Finally, families can go on with their lives and be creative (in both the literal and figurative sense of the word) and not worry that each generation will have to retrace the knowledge of their ancestors.
It is not recommended that you replace your document management server with a room full of Hindu mystics, but the point is still valid - different knowledge management requirements imply different knowledge management solutions. The most basic of knowledge management systems today is the efficient administrator in a small office who, with the help of Rolodex, organiser, and sticky notes knows the exact location of every individual and piece of knowledge within the organisation. This does not mean that we should be complacent with our existing systems. Complacency that Knowledge Management is just another fad or buzzword leads to ignoring the problem it is trying to solve. The argument goes, 'If we survived without it in the past, why do we need it now? Knowledge can take care of itself.' But companies that fail to realise the power of knowledge are threatened with extinction.
You will hear lots of people talking about Knowledge Management. Some are doing it, but most fail to realise the true potential of their investment. This failure comes from a misconception about what Knowledge Management is, and what it is not.
It is not just about technology. It is about utilising technology to deal with a world that gets smaller and faster by the second.
It is not just the latest buzzword. It is about long-term growth and short-term profitability. It is about the future existence of your business!
It is not just about managing knowledge. It is about changing your entire business culture and strategy to one that values learning and sharing and more importantly, acts upon these values.
The centre of Knowledge Management lies in how individuals communicate with one another. Knowledge Management means matching those who need information to those who can provide it. Knowledge management is a continuous process. It is about creating a culture that not only manages knowledge, but actually uses it - and changes the way they act as a result of this learning. It is not a quick fix and, as the pilgrims in Hadiwar show, technology is only one part of the solution.
So, what is the future for Knowledge Management? Today, most companies working at implementing Knowledge Management look at it as a way to cut costs. And for many companies, the cost savings can be huge. But at some point in time, there are no longer any more costs to save, and there becomes only one way for corporations to increase in value - growth. As the chart below shows, the future value of Knowledge Management is not about cutting costs, but promoting growth through innovation and imagination.
order for this to be more than a nice theory, organisations must take concrete,
and sometimes very difficult steps in the way that they foster innovation. These
|Top management support|
|Decentralisation of strategy|
|Investment in innovation|
Top management support
All organisations, no matter how progressive still have some sort of leadership. If any initiative is to succeed, especially one that fundamentally changes the way a business operates, key decision-makers must walk the talk and ultimately sponsor these initiatives. For example, a knowledge management project in a major international bank is currently facing problems because the sponsor is the human resources department rather than the CEO. Senior management is unable to see the need to perform for an individual (the HR director) whom they consider their peer or worse. Top management can facilitate and accelerate necessary organisational change through a number of steps:
a) Setting an Example - Being the first to use the systems, forcing others to adopt the system too (in order to stay in the loop)
b) Empowering Champions - Selecting and giving responsibility to individuals to identify critical knowledge and best practices which are transferable and allow these individuals to be responsible for information diffusion within the organisation.
c) Rocking the Boat - One of the more controversial roles of top management will be to ensure that the organisation does not become comfortable with its knowledge management practices in a way that might lead to complacency.
d) Promote Experimentation - Top management must encourage constant experimentation developing an internal flux, much as a tennis player shifts weight between his/her feet just before a serve, to ensure that (s)he is ready to respond rapidly to a change in the environment.
e) Lead the way from know-how to care-why- As stated above, the company culture is vital to the success of Knowledge Management projects. It is up to senior management to embody the vision and culture of an organisation. As will be described below, it is not necessarily their place to define this vision or culture in its entirety.
Decentralisation of strategy
"The entire organisation, not just top management, should have a voice in creating strategy. The process must be pluralistic and participative." -
In the past, it was widely accepted that the top managers of an organisation would define the strategic goals for the company and the middle managers would be left to implement them. If Knowledge Management is to succeed, vision and values will, and must become a shared priority rather than a top down command. But disseminating this control is not easy. The management of existing organisations may be filled with MBAs, PhDs and hoards of other supposedly accomplished and intelligent individuals. Unfortunately, these individuals also come with a history, both personal and institutional. In implementation, this history far outweighs any clear thinking.
The chart on the left from the book, Beyond Ambition2, details why managers have such difficulty changing the way they think. As companies undertake more Knowledge Management initiatives, essential information can no longer be tightly held by a few senior executives. Each individual in the organisation will have nearly as much corporate data as top management. Management must react to this movement or be crushed by the diversity of options that will inevitably be formed. Thus, the formulation of values and visions must incorporate all members of the organisation.
Investment in innovation
Investment in innovation comes in two parts; investment in infrastructure and investment in individuals both in time and remuneration. Investment in Infrastructure means spending the time and money on both computer and organisational systems to capture and share knowledge. Until these are seen as a priority in financial terms they will never be seen as a priority in cultural terms. Investment in individuals means recognising that as the nature of business evolves, the primary assets of organisations are not bricks or machines but people. Giving people the chance to innovate requires giving them the time to do so. The best example of this is the often quoted case of 3M, where 15% of individuals' time is dedicated to working on new ideas. It is not only the goal of Knowledge Management to ensure that this happens, but also to capture all the innovation and information generated by this process. The second means of incentivisation is of a more financial nature. By sharing the profits of new ideas both companies and individuals can benefit. For example, many consulting companies do this by paying their top employees to write books, and then share the royalties and advertising generated by the book's publication.
It is not easy to get the Systems, Strategy and Culture in place in an organisation, but it is the only way to create long-term growth. Innovation and imagination are key to survival in the next century. The future will not be defined by Knowledge Management, but by Imagination Management. In the words of Albert Einstein, 'Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.'
Jon Goldberg is knowledge Management Practice Manager of Conduit Communications. He can be contacted at: