posted 25 May 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 7
Christian Young presents six guiding principles for eco friendly knowledge work
Roughly two years ago, I applied for a knowledge management (KM) position with an architectural firm that prided itself on creating sustainable, eco-friendly design solutions. During the interview I was asked about my experience working in a ‘green environment’. I hadn’t had such an opportunity and I wondered if, for the purpose of KM, it really even mattered. I mean, off the top of my head, when I think of a green environment, I think about feng shui’d workspaces featuring recycling bins, oxygenating plants, no-flush urinals, and fewer light fixtures in favour of lots of windows to bring in natural light. But green KM? Frankly, it sounded a little pretentious.
Generally speaking, the green movement is based on an ecological philosophy, which promotes the adoption and application of environmentally responsible practices and behaviours in order to respect and protect our natural environment. These practices can include forestry management, producing and consuming organic and natural foods, using alternative energy and fuels, natural medicine, health and body care, recyclable carpet and clothing, and much more. Politically speaking, the green movement focuses on ecological and environmental issues, as well as civil rights and social justice.
However, it wasn’t until reading Dustin Wax’s April 2008 Stepcase Lifehack article, ‘Getting Green Done’, that my eyes were opened to the potential value of taking a green approach to the implementation of a KM strategy. In the article, Wax posits “the principles of Green living are not all that different from the principles we use to help us be more productive.” Wax goes on to summarise his manifesto with a potent declaration to those who are truly committed to going green: “...we can’t do all the work. We can’t even do a tiny fraction of the work. We can suggest, prod, provide tricks and hacks, but in the end, you’re going to have to make some decisions, to think about how your actions fit in with your values, whatever they are.”
This statement – which applies equally to those responsible for developing and implementing KM strategies, as well as the larger organisational community – echoes my similar belief with regards to pursuing change management initiatives. Change management efforts involving behaviours and relationships (in the case of KM, with both people and information) are heavily values-oriented. Although they are often criticised, dismissed, or deferred for their failure to demonstrate a clear and immediate profit. However, profit – despite the value ascribed to it – is not a value. Nor does the consideration (and prioritisation) of organisational values indicate the lack of a profit-incentive. Ultimately, the goal of an effective KM strategy is to facilitate change(s) that will positively impact the organisation’s profitability. As such, it’s important to respect the values/profit dynamic, not simply hopscotch over one to get to the other. Organisations whose success and survival is dependent upon being innovative and adaptable (which pretty much covers all organisations these days) would be well-served by reflecting, critically, on what they are willing to do in the pursuit of profit and how well it squares with their actual values.
As the following six principles of green KM suggest, such an approach involves engaging in responsible, respectful, and transparent behaviours and practices. The upshot of which should lead to the aforementioned critical reflection and a pronouncement – even if only through its actions – of the values an organisation truly embodies and supports.
‘Green’ equates simplicity to measuring and, subsequently, reducing one’s ecological footprint – the impact we each have on the natural environment. In terms of green KM, simplicity is defined as being stealthy and minimally invasive in the pursuit of KM initiatives. One example of this is the integration of existing technologies or processes (that work) into a KM strategy, rather than attempting to introduce something new. When new technologies or processes are necessary, recognise and appreciate the potential for disruption, and roll them out in steps.
Nearly every KM strategy that I’ve been involved with has been developed, exclusively, from the perspective of the organisation and its leadership (as opposed to that of the ‘rank-and-file’ employee). Green KM suggests taking a closer look at this disparity to acknowledge the value of sharing knowledge/information across organisational roles. It’s one thing to say knowledge sharing doesn’t diminish an individual’s value to the organisation, but is this genuinely the case? Be honest, because if it’s not or you’re not sure, it’s likely employees don’t believe it either and that will result in a poor knowledge-sharing community or, at best, an immature one.
Although I am a hardcore advocate of an annual knowledge auditing process, I recognise that not everyone completes one (either regularly or at all). It strikes me, though, as sheer stupidity to come up with a strategy from on high, at a distance, without getting in the trenches with said community. KM is community development; it is dependent upon sharing information and resources in community. For this to happen, successfully, people need to develop relationships with one another predicated on mutual trust, respect, and recognition of their interdependence. The knowledge manager should be a force for building this type of community and, by doing so, achieve greater insight into how the KM strategy can be most effective.
It isn’t enough to develop and implement a KM strategy, it needs to be sustainable beyond anyone acting in an official KM capacity. In order for that to happen, it needs to accommodate the negative outputs of the organisation (knowledge hoarding, fears of diminished value, layoffs/downsizing, change fatigue, working more for less, and so on) and turn them into a positive output (skills enhancement, ease of access to critical information, improved workplace relationships, stronger market position of the company leading to increased financial rewards for everyone, less stressful work environment, improved work-life balance).
Ask yourself how long your organisation’s formal KM strategy would last if the KM team was no more and what it would take for your answer to be ‘indefinitely’, then make it so.
As Wax writes, “Creating sustainability requires planning”.
No matter how much control we try to maintain, change is inevitable. Control may be comfortable and reassuring, but in the long run, attempting to exert too much limits the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Planning (and executing) a sustainable, strategic KM initiative requires operating in the present with an eye on the future; thinking in terms of how changes and innovations in technology, the workforce, politics, market forces, the environment, and social movements might impact your organisation and coordinating an appropriate strategic response.
Transparency implies open dialogue and full disclosure throughout the KM lifecycle. Green KM adds the additional element of accountability, actively advocating and promoting the concept of knowledge stewardship across the organisation. Although, transparency isn’t always feasible in business and, occasionally, stakeholders are asked to support organisational activities with limited knowledge and input, it is imperative that KM avoid this pitfall. Particularly when dealing with cultures strained from change fatigue and possessed of a general suspicion of (or, worse yet, ambivalence towards) KM.
Christian Young is an independent KM strategy consultant and occasional blogger. He can be contacted at email@example.com or via his blog at http:kmreflections.blogspot.com