posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
The big debate
In the first of this two-part debate, Jerry Ash argues that KM is not just alive, well and prospering, but is still in its infancy.
This article has been brewing for more than 12 years. That’s how long I’ve been a devoted champion of knowledge management (KM), focusing exclusively on the positive, searching for the good in the negative, avoiding the slings and arrows that have been ever present on the periphery – my occasional critique hopeful. And so it is now.
Dismissing the occasional pessimistic prophet has been easy enough, but the voices quoted in my feature this month cannot go ignored. There’s a little bit of devilishness in Dave Snowden, as always, but by and large he has been one of the most sincere (and yes, controversial) knowledge-sharers KM has had. On multiple list-serves and conference stages there is the ubiquitous Dave Snowden, teaching, debating, probing, needling, critiquing and promoting his version of KM. Some may denigrate his energy as self-promotional, but no one can seriously say he’s been selfish. He is a champion and what he says (right or wrong) matters.
So when he said: “KM… is over guys; live with it,” I had to take the bait. I found myself disagreeing with him point for point, but countering quietly with my own long-buried criticisms and concerns, even of KM itself.
People talk of ‘KM’ the brand as though it were something different from KM the practice. That is to say, KM is not dead, but KM the brand (the software product) is. The practice will move on under other flags because KM as a label has outlived its usefulness.
But managing knowledge never has been a brand. KM was not invented by a single guru, programmer or consulting group. If it had a father, it was the seemingly sudden appearance of the internet and the worldwide web that made the internet usable and exciting. Managing knowledge is simply a natural response to the organic change in knowledge flow and human empowerment that technology has brought.
The need for individuals, groups or organisations to manage knowledge is obvious. Savvy business leaders and change-minded organisations have understood the immediate political, social and economic impact and have begun factoring that into strategies and practice.
Knowledge management is a generic term with as many interpretations as those who use it, yet always meaning, somehow, the same thing – the management of knowledge. Only the ‘how’ has differed.
For the same reasons KM is not a fad. If it were, then it would very quickly have reached the status of the other fads it has been compared to – quality management and business process re-engineering (BPR).
A fad is a fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time. It’s a craze. The business community, by and large, hasn’t gone crazy about KM. Ironically, the fad claim came first from those without enthusiasm who branded KM a fad as a means of resistance – ‘this one shall pass, too’, was the underlying message.
Compared to quality management and BPR, there has been only a relatively small, scattered community of KM enthusiasts – largely solo practitioners – carrying KM’s water. They have talked mostly to each other and prospective clients who are often skeptical because KM hasn’t, in fact, been a fad. Actual practice of KM is still in its infancy and confined to a relatively small number of organisations compared to the number who are not yet engaged.
Generic responses to organic changes brought about by radical innovation as chaotic as the web can’t possibly have a faddish lifecycle – certainly not as short as 20 years. The potential for gain and failure is so great that managing knowledge can’t be ignored any time in the foreseeable future. It is far more critical than fads such as quality management and BPR which were contrived tactics dealing with the world as it had been, not as it has become. Sure, quality and restructuring are still important – but now in the context of managing knowledge.
I think those within KM who eagerly agree that it is finished have blinkers on. They are only seeing what’s in front of them. Yes, the KM they are familiar with seems to be in a redundant period and they are frustrated with the current lack of progress. They want to move on to a more promising field. Understandable; but, what about those who have not yet begun the lifecycle?
At the end of our recent Association of Knowledgework (AOK) debate, Jack Ring, an independent KM consultant in the US, noted the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has just announced the creation of a new position – chief knowledge officer. He ridiculed, “Now the FBI is no longer 30 years behind the times, only ten!”
Jack was among those who came to bury KM, but he made my point. When so much of the world has not yet taken the first step to manage knowledge, how can KM’s lifecycle be over?
Compared to the quality management movement, KM’s spread is very small, limited primarily to Fortune 500 companies. I’ve constantly searched among the not-so-Fortunates for a small or medium-sized company as a case report for IK, but with no success. Yet 20 years ago I worked for a 200-bed hospital in West Virginia that was feverish about quality management. If enthusiasm marks a fad, then quality management had it.
The quality movement was explicit and organised. Everyone wanted to earn the European Quality Award or the Baldrige Award in the US. By contrast, KM has no core. Although KM has been researched and practiced for at least 15 years, it has no single body of knowledge or standards of practice. It has no unifying organisation or single voice. Each of KM’s advocates is carrying a lonely cause, one prospect at a time. The world is still largely in the dark about the means of managing knowledge.
KM has not yet even earned its legitimacy.
No. KM is not finished. It hasn’t even made a good start. How can KM fold up its tent and wander off in multiple new directions to sink further into mystery? What sense is there in further fragmenting a strategy that can only work as a whole, not as disconnected parts? But maybe Snowden is right. Maybe KM has outlived its usefulness if it is not ready to extend itself beyond limited theory and practice.
Several threads run through an AOK dialogue. Before the KM-is-over spin-off, I attempted to get some discussion going on the need for the unification of the KM community so that it could go beyond ‘talking’ to ‘doing’ – to take on the responsibility of developing a creditable body of knowledge, agreed-upon standards of practice, and raising the profile and understanding of KM everywhere.
There was not one response, and ‘moving on’ became the new thread. Disheartening, but not final. KM is not just a neat idea; it is a necessity. The demand side of the equation will sustain it. The question is, are we up to providing the leadership?
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org, and special correspondent to Inside Knowledge. Jerry Ash can be reached by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.