40 KM Pitfalls to Avoid: Part 1

Stan Garfield
5 min readJul 3, 2020

Originally posted 02-Jul-20

When starting a KM initiative, knowledge management practitioners often fall into traps that may limit the effectiveness of the program. This is the first of a five-part series on pitfalls to recognize and avoid.

  1. Part 2
  2. Part 3
  3. Part 4
  4. Part 5

The recording of my webinar discussing all 40 KM pitfalls is available here.

1. Trying to take on too much.

There are at least 50 different people, process, and technology components available for implementation. Avoid the temptation to try all of them, and instead, keep focused on choosing the few which will yield the greatest benefits in the short term to your organization.

And watch out for the allure of the latest technology, the current fad, or the tool which sounds too good to be true. Stick with proven approaches, even if they seem boring and predictable.

2. Focusing on technology.

It is common for KM initiatives to immediately be drawn to technical solutions, including tools, systems, and databases. These can help make a program succeed, but they should always be in support of a people or process component.

Implementing portals, repositories, search engines, and other tools will not automatically address how content is provided, whether or not people use the tools, or how the use of the tools yields beneficial results. Communities are groups of people, not portals or bulletin boards. Knowledge is shared and reused by people following processes, not by systems.

Some members of the KM team will still fixate on the design of repositories, collecting documents, and reporting on minutiae such as uploads and downloads. Keep reminding them that connection is just as important as collection.

3. Not engaging the constituents.

Any new initiative will fail if it does not meet the needs of its intended audience or is perceived as being created in isolation. To prevent this from happening, treat your users as customers whom you are trying to acquire, satisfy, and keep.

Use virtual teams and communities to continuously solicit, capture, and respond to the needs of the people in your organization. Establish ongoing methods for two-way communications. Conduct surveys, publish newsletters, and maintain web sites. And above all, listen to what your constituents tell you, and take timely action in response.

4. Doing too much studying and planning and not enough prototyping and piloting.

It’s necessary to study and plan before starting a new initiative. However, there is a time to declare success for your planning efforts and move on. For example, after conducting a survey of existing tools, you may not need to conduct another one. And if you conduct monthly employee satisfaction surveys for a year and find that the results are not varying, you can probably stop doing them.

Prototyping and piloting allow you to test out new ideas, gain experience, and make iterative refinements. You can quickly learn that an assumption was wrong and modify your direction. Instead of planning for a new version of a tool or a web site for six months, try making small incremental improvements each week. Users will benefit immediately from the changes, and they will perceive your team as being dynamic and responsive instead of slow and plodding.

5. Not reusing what others have already learned and implemented.

Knowledge management has been around for over 25 years. A lot has been learned during this time, and you can benefit from this fact.

Reusing the ideas and experiences of others is what you are asking others to do in the KM initiative. You should model this behavior by applying it yourself. By sharing, innovating, reusing, collaborating, and learning with other KM professionals, you will show your organization how it is supposed to be done, and in the process, accelerate implementation and ensure success.

6. Focusing on collecting documents or updating skills profiles

Dave Snowden wrote, “If you ask someone, or a body for specific knowledge in the context of a real need it will never be refused. If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it.”

This suggests that asking people to fill in skills profiles, contribute documents, or otherwise share their knowledge without knowing how and why it will be used is a losing proposition. You can try to motivate people by making it mandatory, withholding payments or perks, or rewarding those who comply. But history shows that most people will resist, and if they submit anything, it will be the minimum.

I have found that letting documents and expertise emerge at the time of need is a better approach. This is best done in a community of practice or an ESN group. If you need to find a document, or an expert to answer a question, talk to a client, attend a meeting, commit to a project, supply documents, post to the most relevant community (or more than one, if appropriate) with your request. If your communities are working as expected, you will receive one more replies and can proceed. Documents and expertise will emerge in the replies to the query. By reading the full thread, you will get a sense of the context for documents that are offered, get different points of view, see points and counterpoints, and be able to synthesize multiple documents and what multiple people think.

7. Being gripped by anxiety

Many people are afraid of failure, blame, criticism, being judged, embarrassment, change, standing out, the unknown, taking the first step, losing control, or being responsible. Seth Godin wrote:

The resistance (the lizard brain) exists to make you safe, which means invisible and unchanged. Signs that the lizard brain is at work:

  • Procrastination
  • You excessively criticize the work of your peers, thus unrealistically raising the bar for your work
  • You criticize anyone who is doing something differently. If they succeed, it means you’ll have to do something differently too.
  • Having an emotional attachment to the status quo
  • Inventing anxiety about the side effects of a new approach

Anxiety is just a pointless form of fear; it’s fear about fear. The resistance is really anxiety; real fear is a response to actual threats, and it’s a perfectly healthy response. Reality is the best antidote for anxiety.

8. Not meeting in person

In this era of virtual work, face-to-face meetings are rarely held any more, although they should be. According to Eric Ziegler, “Face-to-face meetings are an investment, not a cost. While people work remotely, meeting face-to-face is absolutely necessary to build stronger relationships, increase trust, and improve collaboration. This is an absolute must.”

And Bruce Karney wrote, “Face-to-face knowledge sharing is not a luxury. The pity is that in many organizations it is perceived as being one. There are indeed examples of effective knowledge sharing in the absence of face to face, but these are far outnumbered by examples of ineffective computer-based and phone-based collaboration. It is a dangerous delusion to believe that frequent face-to-face knowledge sharing meetings are a luxury.”



Stan Garfield

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/