posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
The big debate
David Snowden responds to Jerry Ash’s defence of knowledge management, arguing that while KM is far from dead, it is coming to the end of its natural lifecycle and that we should prepare to move on.
Jerry Ash’s Association of Knowledgework (AOK) forum went through an interesting period recently. It is not a standard e-mail list-serve; instead of an open flow of topics, a series of ‘stars’ hold forth for a couple of weeks and the group as a whole gets involved. Some support the star, some are critical, some controversial.
Historically, Jerry has been the moderator, but in the most recent exchanges he moved from facilitator to centrestage and took on the role of advocate of a particular perspective of knowledge management (KM). This produced some interesting dynamics, but there was a clear conflict of interest. Thanks to Jerry’s good grace, he moved aside from the role of moderator and engaged in the cut-and-thrust on the same terms as everyone else.
Jerry opened the topic with a passionate advocacy of the value of KM, seeking the support of the group for KM as a strategic goal. I commented early on, referencing a blog I had recently written on the subject, but that was not picked up by the group. The debate was mixed, but towards the end Jerry was robustly challenged by another member who suggested that his view of KM was idealistic at best and naïve at worst.
I then entered the fray to support the challenge and the debate raged for an additional week.
Now the discussion was interesting, diverse, but good tempered. There were multiple advocates on both sides. Bob Buckman, for example, argued that the death of KM would be a good thing. I was very surprised, as a result, to see Jerry’s article fail to report on the wider debate. Instead, he took a single quote from one of my posts – out of context, I felt – to position me as a pessimistic self-promoting prophet advocating the death of KM.
I think this is an important debate, so let me repeat the essence of my contribution to the forum. My view is that KM is coming to the end of its lifecycle in management theory. But this does not mean that the objectives of KM will cease to be important, nor that KM activities will cease. We managed knowledge before KM, just as we paid attention to quality before quality management.
What a movement does is to create a focus on something that we may have taken for granted or simply not done well. There is a natural process of focus and renewal that is important to making progress. Of course, taken to excess it can be nonsense. However, the three main movements of recent years – total quality management (TQM), business process re-engineering (BPR) and KM – all persisted for the best part of a decade in high focus and had (or will have) a ‘long tail’. I still expect to be doing KM work in ten years’ time.
That said, I think that KM is now in that tail. The strategic aspect of KM has shifted, I think, to the general topic of sense-making. I define sense-making as how we make sense of the world so we can act in it. Many readers, I’m sure, will recognise this as similar to a lot of the better KM definitions that were action orientated. The innovative use of collaborative technology, which was also a driver of KM, is now firmly labeled as social computing and most of the leaders of that movement avoid the KM label. Narrative, which was originally a part of KM, is now a discipline in its own right. In effect, KM is now fragmented in terms of novelty and business as usual in terms of its standard practices.
I suspect such comments may offend many with ‘KM’ in their job title. Jerry, who has observed and reported on KM extensively, is obviously concerned. However, I think we have to accept that KM as a subject is now inextricably bound up with IT. If you look at the US and UK conferences they have all been combined with technology events (content management, intranets and so on) in order to attract in the sponsors.
Most of the academic literature I review deals with the technology aspects of KM. Yes, the name will persist. Yes, interesting work will continue under that name but it is no longer strategic in the marketplace as a whole. The ‘fad cycle’ moves on and that may be no bad thing as it creates novelty. It also gives those of us who always disliked Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ichijo Nonaka’s SECI model, and argued for the ambiguity and brilliance of human knowledge and interaction, a chance to move our thinking back onto the strategic agenda.
That said, it’s worth reflecting on KM, too. It’s not yet dead. We are not at the wake, but we are in affectionate preparation for that event. Remember that in the Celtic tradition a wake is a celebration, a moving on. So I offer these thoughts, in that spirit.
What’s so special about KM?
There is no question that there is something special about KM practitioners. They are passionate people, they care about informing people. What is so special? I see three main factors:
1. KM did not have a single origin
If you look at BPR, the ‘learning organisation’ and ‘blue ocean strategy’, then they all originate from a single author, a single book – and linked consultancy practice. KM, in contrast, has multiple origins. Bob Buckman pioneered the use of collaborative computing; APQC organised the first major KM event; Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport moved into the space from information management (with, to my mind, one of the best books in Working Knowledge); Tom Stewart and Leif Edvinsson explored intellectual capital management; Elizabeth Lank was the unsung pioneer of the knowledge café. But the individual aspects that I list largely ran their course. However, as a whole, they created something that has been largely self-organising and self sustaining for more than a decade;
2. KM is people focused
Most of the previous movements were very mechanical. BPR was the exemplar of this. The other movements were mainly top down and directional. A significant amount of KM activity was bottom up. Most of the early experiments in community consisted of people just taking up and using the tools to make things happen. As the tools have got easier to use, that bottom up approach has persisted and developed into social computing. Indeed, most of the other movements attract followers, KM attracted original and often controversial thinkers;
3. KM was important in releasing technology from the corporate straitjacket
Most people forget that when KM started computing was still fairly new. The internet was in its early stages, e-mail was not yet universal and the sheet volume of information that is now available was hardly envisaged except by an enlightened few. The first collaboration software in Lotus Notes was a part of the creation of KM as a discipline and many of the early applications were written in it. It was also user-friendly enough that people could start to build their own workflow and collaboration systems. Websites, HTML and so on all blossomed around this time and they co-evolved with the emerging ideas of KM to create the distributed, collaborative and information-rich environment in which we now live. The last decade has seen technology move from centralised and privileged control to distributed free access and use. KM was and is a part of that.
So what went wrong?
Well not a lot. Death is part of the natural cycle of life and KM has (to use a British expression) had a ‘good innings’. However, some things were wrong. Here is my provisional and partial list:
1. Takeuchi and Nonaka’s SECI model was a great way of explaining a particular aspect of Japanese industry, but a very bad general model of KM. It focused on the container, not the item within (‘tacit’ knowledge in people, ‘explicit’ written down). It led people to believe that you could make tacit knowledge explicit and then make it tacit again simply by reading material. Early attempts at KM focused on removing dependency on people, ‘extracting’ their knowledge into databases and organising it into neat and tidy taxonomies;
2. We got a little bit too obsessed with the technology. People read about Bob Buckman’s use of the technology and forgot all the work he did on getting people engaged across the company. The big consultancies entered the field and built KM systems for people who spent their entire life writing reports and then tried to move those systems sideways into very different organisations. We then got into semantic technologies and a second wave of belief that artificial intelligence could interpret and create knowledge. That led to the failed attempt to replace the pattern basis of human intelligence with rule based systems and KM became the domain of the technology companies – they funded its events, after all;
3. More recently, people have tried to create standards and certify competence in the subject. Most of the people who did this (and are still doing it) have little actual pedigree in the subject – they are professional trainers. We still get attempts to control or dominate the space and regrettably some good people are getting caught up in the hope that a professional body could perpetuate the life of KM. It’s not going to happen. The subject is too diverse. The British Standards Institute report was good because it said that there was no right answer and recognised different approaches. The Australian standard was good because of the way it was socially constructed, although a downside was its lowest common-denominator nature. But neither were able to establish themselves in a rapidly developing space.
So, where are we going? Well, I think the future is bright. With the benefit of hindsight we will be able to see that KM was the discipline that first challenged the mechanical metaphor of BPR and the top-down-driven values of the ‘learning organisation’ movement. It made possible the wider integration of science with management and with learning from the humanities; sense-making and social computing are its natural inheritors and both are stronger for the last ten years journey.
Hopefully, the name will stay around for some years yet, but the strategic focus is now elsewhere.
Jerry concludes by saying that he wants to move KM from ‘talking to doing’ and to unify the KM movement, creating a body of knowledge. I find this ironic. Those of us who opposed Jerry’s position have over the last decade and more been active in the practice of KM as well as writing (and talking) about it. We have not been reporters of other people’s activities but have sought to change things through action. We will continue to ‘do’ KM, but we will also move on and do new things. If Jerry wants to rally people to his banner then I wish him luck, but ask him to have the decency to do it without stereotyping or misrepresenting the motivations of those who disagree with him.
David Snowden is founder of Cognitive Edge and can be contacted via his website, www.cognitive-edge.com. Snowden’s debut book, Cognitive Edge: Making Sense of Complexity is in preparation and a publication date is expected later in the year.