posted 25 Aug 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 10
Lee Bryant on why KM has sometimes failed in the past, and how social business design can help mainstream its fundamental ideas and practices
The goals and principles of knowledge management (KM) are more important than ever, but the practice of KM seems to have dwindled in recent years. However, KM concepts lie at the heart of the emerging disciplines of
KM practitioners and advocates can grasp the opportunity offered by modern social computing, then I think there is real hope that they can achieve their goals, albeit possibly under a different label.
What is KM?
This is an age old question! While there are many definitions, I tend to agree with David Weinberger’s view that: “Knowledge management should not be about helping us to know more. It should be about helping us to understand better,” (see www.gurteen.com/gurteen/gurteen.nsf/id/X00193D72/). In a world of increasing information overload, KM can help people with sense-making and turning insights into action, whether through technology, such as better filters, information management skills or behaviours that help people work together to make sense of information flows. It is also, as David Snowden sometimes says, fundamentally about helping people make better decisions. Conventional KM doctrine talks about providing the right information at the right time, which is of course important; but we are learning a lot more about the ability of people to perform pattern matching on large amounts of un-optimised data or signals. And this opens up an entirely new approach to improving decision making, by providing ambient information in various forms. This approach, which aims to stimulate serendipity and emergent outcomes, is also widely used as part of innovation initiatives, where we want to cross-fertilise ideas and different areas of inquiry in pursuit of new ideas.
These days, we are focused on emergent collective outcomes as well as individual performance and task support. When Tim O’Reilly popularised the term ‘Web 2.0’ to denote a read-write web rather than one-way consumption of information, he talked about creating an “architecture of participation” that can aggregate individual behaviours to drive collective benefit. One obvious use for this thinking is within organisations, where we can create new forms of collective intelligence that imbue organisational networks and structures with a knowledge that goes beyond the sum of that held by individuals within in. This is an interesting counter-point to one of the problematic ideas of early KM: the notion that one of the main aims was to capture, and make explicit, our implicit knowledge so that it could be analysed, shared and stored. The rather dubious idea of knowledge audits was informed by this thinking, and also by a (fatuous and rather insecure) desire to put a fake financial value on an organisation’s ‘knowledge stock’. Instead, networks are now our unit of analysis, not just the individual, and we talk about intelligence remaining at the network edges, rather than just at the centre.
John Chambers at Cisco is credited with a major overhaul of the technology giant, driven in part by a desire to devolve decision making and initiative, rather than centralise it within management functions. He talks about a company that now has hundreds of CEOs, not just one, and he refers to this as the “Power of We”, which has enabled the organisation to become more efficient, more agile and more intelligent. This is testament to the power of collective intelligence within organisations to improve network productivity, and points to a major area of potential value for smart knowledge sharing strategies.
Where has KM gone wrong?
So, if the ideas and precepts of KM are still relevant, then why have we seen so little progress in the corporate position of KM since the turn of the century? First of all, I think the biggest constraint on KM has been its co-dependent relationship with IT. Being beholden to IT to deliver on their ideas is perhaps the biggest problem KM people have faced in most organisations. But also, unlike IT, KM has not managed to achieve consistent board level sponsorship and approval. While most organisations now have a CIO or a CTO, very few have a CKO, and even where they do, this is often regarded as a ‘nice to have’ function that in practice depends upon the willingness of IT to deliver.
But KM has also got some things badly wrong. First, the obsession with storage and repositories of explicit knowledge has, I would argue, been a major distraction from the need to work within the flow of people’s day to day work. Social computing has demonstrated that what matters is not the storage of knowledge objects but rather the husbandry of knowledge feeds and flows.
The second practical flaw in KM thinking has been the focus on taxonomies and controlled vocabularies, rather than embracing folksonomies and emergent metadata. Taxonomy projects are like painting the
Finally, perhaps the biggest failing of KM has been its ability to understand human behaviour and motivation, and to work with (rather than against) the grain of human nature. Too often, KM has asked us to share for the common good, but it turns out that people don’t work like that, and unless sharing is either super-easy or satisfies some selfish individual need, then it won’t happen. By contrast, social computing seeks to create sharing as a by-product of action, and targets selfish motives for doing so, which tend to result in greater collective good.
Despite these failings, I believe KM thinking is what we need to help solve some of our most pressing business problems.
Making an impact
For example, the gradual accretion of more and more process, resulting in less scope for the application of human talent and initiative, has left many companies too bureaucratic and expensive to run. Solving this problem is not easy, but KM can help – for example, by socialising mandatory compliance or process knowledge, and giving people tools and techniques to fulfil the demands of the process in different ways. A related problem that KM can help ameliorate is the issue of silos and disconnects, where different parts of an organisation develop and operate separately. There is also a general need for organisations to create evolutionary dynamics so that they can change gradually over time in response to changing circumstances, rather than just wait for the next major re-organisation. This requires performance data and related social signals to be fed back into the organisation, perhaps even to the individual, so that people can see in close to real-time the results of their work and adjust accordingly. This, and other areas of performance measurement, could benefit from KM thinking.
The best vehicle for KM thinking to have an impact on the business right now is the emerging field of social business design, which draws on the technical innovation of so-called Enterprise 2.0 (itself drawing from the Web 2.0 movement referenced earlier). Social business thinking represents a more practical and business-focused approach to using our new understanding of human behaviour within social networks to drive improved performance and business agility.
Social business questions the need for some of the trappings of organisational structure and process, drawing on Alvin Toffler’s idea of ‘adhocracries’. This has been updated by more recent observations, such as those of Clay Shirky in his book, Here Comes Everybody, to suggest that anybody can these days form a group to engage in collective action and collaboration, and indeed it has never been easier or cheaper to do so. This has profound implications for organisation design. Part of the reason for this is the way the social web collapses distance, allowing us to have a high degree of intimacy and scale at the same time, which was previously a major trade-off in large structures.
Drawing on the CISCO example, we are now concerned equally with networked productivity as with individual performance, and this demands real insights about the function of social networks in the workplace. The goal of social business is to achieve a socially-calibrated organisation that gets the most out of its human talent, both inside and outside the firewall, and enables businesses to return to some of their more socially connected roots.
Given the heavy focus on information and knowledge flows in social business and Enterprise 2.0, it is surprising that KM professionals have not been faster to take this opportunity to achieve a more mainstream position within their organisations. In fact, KM people were often the first to understand the value of social business, and they have precisely the right sort of skills to make it happen, but I think in some cases it was marketing and PR who grasped the shiny, new field of social media and made it their own, despite the fact that the majority of value for social tools lies inside, not outside the organisation.
So, does social business really provide an opportunity to move KM ideas out of the metaphorical library and into the business mainstream? I think so. KM people have an opportunity to take the lead in knowledge networking, finding and opening up data that can help drive performance improvement, helping people navigate and make sense of information, and generally working to build the architectures of participation within our firms that we need to enable people to get things done more effectively.
Lee Bryant is a founding director of Headshift. He can be contacted at email@example.com