40 KM Pitfalls to Avoid: Part 4

Stan Garfield
11 min readJul 23, 2020

Originally posted 23-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 fourth of a five-part series on pitfalls to recognize and avoid.

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

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

25. Not controlling the creation of communities and ESN groups

In the community realm, we often get into a debate about whether we should try to control the creation of communities. There is value in trying to limit the number of communities that any organization has. There are a lot of reasons to do this, but the counterargument is that we should let a thousand flowers bloom and use survival of the fittest. Let there be 100 different communities all focused on social media. One of them will emerge and that’s the way it should be.

If you have 100 communities for social media, there won’t be the survival of the fittest. They will all die. It’s because when someone tries to go and learn about social media, they look at the available communities and see a bewildering list of communities to choose from. They just give up, or if they do pick one, they will miss lots of other people who would have benefited from sharing information or who could have answered questions. None of the communities ever achieves critical mass, and as result, none thrive.

Allowing an infinite number of these things doesn’t work well. In this instance, limited control has value. Get groups to combine. Make your communities so that it’s easy for the user to figure out which one to join, and to have critical mass where all people interested in the same topic can be together. You should try to prevent redundant communities, but it’s not because you’re trying to exert some kind of top-down authoritarian control. Rather, it’s to respect your users — to give them an easy-to-understand environment where they know which community to join, and all the people can reliably be expected to be in that community.

26. Trying to eliminate all risks

Some companies are very sensitive to risks. I worked at one of them, and there are plenty of other ones. They are concerned that we might somehow share information that we shouldn’t share, or that information would be leaked somehow. In some cases, they try to control all access to the outside world.

If you have a social network and it is open, then you will be aware if such a thing happens, because you will see it. If you don’t allow that, what happens? People do it some other way that you don’t see. You can’t prevent somebody from handing a piece of paper or sending an email or having a phone call or some other means. You can’t necessarily control that. Yet you’re saying, “If we block social media, that will be the answer.” It’s actually better to encourage things to be shared where you can see them, and if somebody does something inappropriate, you could then talk to them and make an intervention. Whereas if you drive it underground, it doesn’t work.

Trust people to do no harm. It doesn’t mean that people won’t do harm. They may do it intentionally or unintentionally, but if they do it in such a way that you can see it, then you can counsel them and you can intervene. If you don’t trust people, why did you hire them? People are working for a company. You hire them and you entrust them with the work you assign. You should trust them to use good sense also when it comes to sharing information.

27. Trying to be like Google and Amazon

Have you ever been asked why your search isn’t more like Google? We all know the reasons why people ask that. The reason it isn’t has to do with scale and the difference between the millions of people on the Internet and the thousands or hundreds of people in your company. But they still ask the question. You may even have leaders who say, “Let’s make our search just like Google.”

The other one that arises is, “Let’s have content ratings like Amazon.” That also will not work well when not at scale. The number of people who actually rate things on Amazon isn’t a very large number, but because there are so many people, it’s large enough to matter.

Inside of a company, the percentage of people who might actually rate a document is tiny. Typically, we see are only two types of people who actually give a one-to-five-star rating on a document. The person who wrote it will give themselves five stars, and someone else who had some axe to grind with them will give them one star. You won’t get a useful rating.

If I’m asked to come up with a five-star rating, it’s hard. I have to struggle with, “Is this three or four or five?” so I won’t do it. That’s the wrong approach. It’s better to ask simple questions such as, “Were you able to reuse this document?” That’s a yes or no question, and an easier one to answer. It’s like the Like button. If you click the Like button, you don’t have to think too hard about it. You either like it or you don’t. If you like it, you click Like. If you have to rate something one, two, three, four or five, you have to think about it. That’s a different dynamic.

I like this approach better: “Click here if you were able to reuse this document.” That’s a very objective statement. You either were able to reuse it or you weren’t. If one is clicked a lot like that, then you can say that’s probably a document that you want to promote or have it appear higher in search results. Think about how these things actually work behind firewalls inside of companies — and treat them differently than saying “this should be just like Google or just like Amazon”.

28. Saying we need our own

Often, the reason for doing something is the belief that we need our own. I received requests like, “Can I have a community for SAP?” I replied, “We already have one. Why don’t you just use that community?” They replied, “I need my own.” They don’t articulate it well as to why, but it’s generally some variation of we need our own. It could be for what they think is a valid reason. They said, “We need one just for this country that we’re in. I need a knowledge management community just for Portugal.” I replied, “Is knowledge management that different in Portugal from how it is in some other country?”

If they wanted to have conversations in Portuguese, that might be a valid reason, but if they simply want an English-language community just for people in Portugal, then there are two problems with that. There aren’t going to be that many people in it. And they will miss out on all the other knowledge management people in the other knowledge management community. Tell them, “You don’t really need your own” and try to refocus their energy to start their own new community into helping lead the existing one. In that case, the best advice is to say, “I’m glad that you’re excited to lead this new community. Let’s have you be a co-leader of the existing one. We can really use your energy bringing in your colleagues from the organization you’re in.” The alternative is to try to get a new one off the ground, which isn’t likely to go well.

We also see the issue with internal versus external — the desire to have an internal community or an internal forum or an internal repository, when in fact, most of the wisdom about the subject may be outside of the company. You see that sort of thing in a community that’s formed where people ask some question that could easily be answered if you were part of an external community, but can’t be answered that easily inside.

The other case is the narrow niche. For example, a request for an enterprise social network group for European specialists in the FI module of SAP. I have seen people create such a group and then write an initial post like, “Hey, everyone. We’re going to talk about the FI Module!” And they are the only member of the group. No one is actually seeing their excited post. We need to help them understand and educate them and guide them, but we also need to help them to see that when you don’t get critical mass in a community, you generally don’t have an active community.

29. Saying I don’t have time

A typical lament you hear is, “I don’t have time for that,” meaning a variety of things. “I don’t have the time to do the thing you’re asking me to do. I don’t have time to participate in communities. I don’t have time to be on calls. I don’t have time to go to conferences.”

What that implies is they don’t think that learning is as important as mundane tasks. If you said, “Why didn’t you attend the community call this week?” they’d say, “I had other stuff to do.” What exactly is that other stuff? Often, it’s attending some meeting or it’s doing some kind of mundane work.

If you back away from that and you say, “We’re in the field of knowledge management; we’re trying to get people to learn and get better at things. Won’t we do that ourselves? Won’t we make one hour a month to learn more about our field?”

Instead, we get consumed by the mundane. No one’s making you learn. No one’s making you attend the conference. When you do, you generally are going to get better at KM. The excuse that you don’t have time generally means that you don’t think it’s important, and you should probably step back and reevaluate that.

30. Saying we should work ourselves out of a job

I sometimes hear that we should work ourselves out of a job. Knowledge management is everyone’s job. Therefore, we don’t really need knowledge management as a department. We don’t really need to be full-time knowledge managers. Our goal should be to not even need knowledge managers anymore. When I hear that, I always say, “What about Finance, HR, and Operations? Is it their goal to work themselves out of a job? Are we going to get rid of the Finance department because finance is all of our jobs?”

This is a fundamental mistake. It’s all of our jobs to actually share and learn and do the things that knowledge management includes. For anything to actually get led in an effective way, there needs to be somebody leading it. To say that there will be no one leading knowledge management and everyone will just do it is naive. It’s not that you need a gigantic knowledge management team, but you always need at least one person who is worrying about this. You may need a few more.

When you say it’s everyone’s job, it’s everyone’s job to do it, but it’s not everyone’s job to be the advocate for it, to be the champion for it, to be shepherding all the people, processes, tools, and components that go into knowledge management work. I don’t think we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job. We’re trying to ingrain knowledge sharing into the work of everyone else, but not necessarily to eliminate the people trying to lead the effort.

If you have an organization with a few people, with someone leading people projects and someone leading process projects and someone leading technology projects, and you have some extended virtual team members, that may be all that you need. You don’t necessarily have to have some monolithic giant structure, but you need something in order to shepherd knowledge management.

31. Believing that bigger is better for organizations, and that smaller is better for community membership

Some KM practitioners say, “The bigger the team we can have, the better. The more power I’ll have. The greater importance I’ll have in the organization. I’ll be measured by that.” This leads to building up a large team, with a large offshore presence, which somehow signifies importance or doing good work. But large doesn’t necessarily mean more effective. In fact, many times the larger you get, the less effective you get, because you’re spending all of your time coordinating and communicating with many different people. If you get down to a smaller number, you have to spend less time doing that.

Large isn’t necessarily better in terms of teams, and large isn’t necessarily better in terms of anything else. The more websites you have isn’t necessarily the better. There are some instances of organizations with millions of web pages. That’s not a good thing, nor is having dizzying websites with lots of animation, widgets, and dense content.

Actually, as Google showed when it came on to the scene, simpler was better. The initial Google interface was just a box in the middle of the page. Meanwhile, the previous champion, AltaVista, had evolved to include all kinds of things. It had every kind of information known to mankind on the page, but that wasn’t what people wanted. They wanted something simpler. More is not necessarily better. Some people tout the fact that they have more ESN groups. That could be bad; more isn’t necessarily good.

On the other side of the coin, some knowledge managers believe that small communities are better than large ones, because all members know each other and thus have greater trust than in large communities. At Deloitte, we studied what number of people you need to have for a community to be active. That number turned out to be 200. If you have 200 or more, there is more likelihood of an active community. If you have fewer than 200, it’s less active. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t counter-examples. It just means that on average, if you don’t get to that magic number, it’s not as likely.

So the exception to the bigger is not better rule is that the more community members who are paying attention, the better. There is no good reason why the size of a community should be limited. Sometimes people ask me, “Isn’t there an optimum size, or shouldn’t you try to keep it small?” If you have 1,000 members in a community and then member 1,001 joins, that’s not going to cause any harm. Member 1,001 may begin learning and benefiting from the other 1,000 members. They may be able to answer questions and share useful information. In the case of community membership, more is better.

32. Trying to make people do things

The expectation that we can make people do things is naive. For example, trying to make people maintain their expertise profiles. It’s not something we tend to like to do, or to contribute all documents. In the early days of KM, we’d say, “Contribute all your documents and then we’ll put them in a repository, and then we can reuse all of them.” No one likes to do that. The idea that we can make somebody do something is not valid. If we make them do it and we enforce it, they will do it to the minimum extent possible.

Forced membership in communities isn’t a good idea. Participation in communities should be voluntary. Or the wish that everyone will start using the intranet from one home page. Some think, “Here’s our intranet home page. We’re going to put a banner ad on there because everyone will go there.” But they won’t. They’re going to bookmark some other page and go there, and you’re not going to be able to determine where they go. Don’t even try. Instead, try to pull them in. If you need to locate expertise, instead of making people fill in their expertise profile, let them join communities and let the expertise emerge in the community.



Stan Garfield

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