40 KM Pitfalls to Avoid: Part 5

Stan Garfield
8 min readJul 28, 2020

Originally posted 27-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 last of a five-part series on pitfalls to recognize and avoid.

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

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

33. Saying that everything is a community

I have heard community used in some strange ways, as if everything is a community. I hear entire populations referred to as a community. My definition of community is a voluntary group that you join because you want to get better at something, not something that defines the organization you’re in, or defines the ethnicity that you have, or some other attribute. There are all these uses of the word community.

A community is something you choose to join because you want to meet up with other people who are interested in the same subject. A community is not a website. It’s not a wiki. It’s not a blog. It’s not an ESN. It’s not an organization. It’s not a project team. It’s just the people who choose to learn more about a subject by coming together.

See 10 Principles for Successful Communities.

34. Worrying that IP will be stolen

People worry that their team’s intellectual property will be stolen. I remember many a discussion inside of companies that I’ve been at where they said, “We’ve got to lock down this content because some other part of our company will use it in the wrong way.”

Here’s an example of that. I was at a company in which we had a consulting division and a field service division. The field service division realized that they needed new sources of revenue because maintenance was a declining revenue stream for computers. They believed they needed to get into new services. The consulting business then became wary: “If we publish any of our materials that we use to deliver services, the field service business is going to steal it and they’ll go out and deliver those services and we’ll lose revenue. Let’s make sure that we make this accessible only for consulting people.”

Of course, that’s not very realistic, because a field service technician in possession of some project plan from a consultant is probably not likely to be able to go out and deliver that consulting service. What’s more likely is that they’ll come to the person who posted it and say, “I see that you posted this document. My customer wants to buy that. Can you help me deliver that?” The thinking that you need to lock it down and secure it so that other people can’t see it goes against the whole concept of knowledge management.

Contrast private ESN groups or locked-down content with what we’re all trying to do, which is to get people to share and to be more open in that sharing. You have to ask, “Why are we doing that?” The answer may be “We’re going to prevent competitors from getting it” or, “We’re going to prevent disgruntled employees from getting it.” There are legitimate reasons — you might be working in a project team which needs to limit access to the project team’s content. That’s fine, but that’s a little bit different than some broader community or broader knowledge repository. If you encounter this, ask, “Is there truly a risk that we’re dealing with here, or is it imaginary?”

35. Using the DIKW pyramid

David Weinberger wrote, “I’ve long been irked by the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid that is so often casually embraced as if its truth were obvious. I disagree with its implication that knowledge is a filtering down of information. I disagree even more that wisdom is a filtering of knowledge. But perhaps most irksome to me is its leaving understanding out of the picture entirely.”

I see no need for creating pyramids, hierarchies, or other similar, meaningless representations. I define knowledge as information in action. If you are thinking about using the DIKW, MFDIKW, DIKWE, or any other similar pyramid in a presentation or document, step away from the keyboard. Leave it out, and find a more relevant way to make your point.

36. Denying the 90–9–1 rule applies

In a typical community, 10% or fewer of the members will tend to post, ask questions, present, etc. The rule of thumb is that 10% of the members will participate at all, and only 1% will regularly be active in discussions and presentations. 90% will not post or speak up at all. Some have questioned whether this rule of thumb really applies. Actual data from Deloitte’s ESN showed 94–5–1. The SIKM Leaders Community showed 96–2–2. So 90–9–1 may actually be optimistic.

From The 90–9–1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities by Jakob Nielsen: “How to Overcome Participation Inequality: You can’t. The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.”

Don’t waste time trying to change this to 70–20–10 or 55–25–20, as some articles have suggested are the actual numbers. The power law (orders of magnitude) appears to be a law of human nature, so overcoming it is akin to repealing the law of gravity.

37. Trying to compute the ROI of KM

The subject of how to compute the return on investment for knowledge management, enterprise social networks, collaboration, and social media has been around since the start of each of these fields. It is important to define and communicate the benefits of these programs, and measure and report on progress, but proving ROI should not be the point.

It’s possible to compute the ROI of a narrowly-defined project requiring capital investment, such as building a new plant or buying a new piece of equipment. But for broader programs which integrate people, process, and technology components, and work with other broad programs such as learning, talent development, and finance to improve the effectiveness of the organization, ROI is ill-suited.

Do we ask what the ROI is for the human resources or finance departments? What about the ROI for the email or phone systems? For example, if we were to eliminate the HR department because its ROI is too low, what might happen? Three potential problems could arise by leaving personnel administration to the individual managers. Certain employees could be wrongly classified as exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus improperly made ineligible for overtime pay. Mistakes could be made with I-9 forms, causing immigration-related problems. And people could be fired improperly, which is the biggest cause of employee lawsuits.

Having trained professionals in the HR department can help avoid these and many other costly errors. But computing the ROI on preventing lawsuits is not possible. The same is true for KM. It can help avoid costs and prevent serious problems, and can be justified on that basis alone. See the section A Sound Business Case.

38. Archiving content after 90 days

Knowledge repositories often are configured to automatically archive documents after some predetermined period of time. The intent is that after content has been available for 90 days (or whatever duration is chosen) it is no longer current and thus should be removed from the repository. The assumption is that this old content should not appear in search results or in lists of available documents.

There are several reasons offered for automatic archiving. Old documents are no longer relevant, accurate, or useful. Searches yield too many results, so weeding out old documents will improve user satisfaction with search. Content contributors should refresh documents periodically.

Contributed content does not automatically become obsolete after a fixed period of time. It may remain valuable indefinitely. I offer the analogy that just because Peter Drucker died in 2005, we don’t remove his books from the library. His insights will continue to be useful for a very long time.

One firm where I worked had an automatic archiving process. As a result, I would often receive messages from frustrated users who were searching for content that they had previously found in the repository but could no longer find. I would have to restore this content from the archive to the active repository. This caused users to be annoyed with the KM program, resulted in a lot of wasted time and effort, and sometimes delayed the retrieval of important information needed for client work.

Steve Denning wrote, “The quality of knowledge does not depend on whether it is old or new but rather whether it is relevant, whether it still works. Whether it is old or new hardly matters. The question is: does it work? The dynamic of academia is different. Here the new is celebrated, whether it is useful or not. The old is looked down on, not because it isn’t useful, but because the raison d’etre of academia is to create the new, not the useful. Innovation in industry will often draw on lessons from the past, particularly those that have been forgotten, or those that can be put together in new combinations to achieve new results. The bottom line however is not whether the knowledge is new, but whether it works in practice.”

With the cost of mass storage steadily decreasing, there are few good reasons to remove content from knowledge repositories unless it is known to be outdated, incorrect, or useless. Instead, allow search engines to limit results based on dates and other metadata to help users more easily find the content they need.

Don’t automatically archive content in a knowledge repository, threaded discussion board, or other collection of knowledge. Instead, ensure that the search engine can limit results by the date of the knowledge object. Defaults can be set to limit results to the last 90 days, one year, or whatever duration is desired. But it should be easy for users to change the date range to include older content in the search results.

39. Seeking a new name for KM

People frequently say that we shouldn’t call our field knowledge management, and that we should call it something else. I identified 50 different names that various people have suggested for what we call the field currently known as knowledge management.

Knowledge Management has been around as a term for over 25 years, while other terms have come and gone during that time. So even if it is not the best term, it is a recognized one, and attempts to replace it have not been successful so far. Those organizations that have tried using one of these alternatives usually end up having to explain what the new term means, and often resort to saying something like “that’s what we used to call knowledge management.” If you have to do that, then changing the name didn’t really help. So “Knowledge Management” is a reasonable term to continue using.

40. Starting KM without first determining the objectives

I have heard each of the following statements or questions at one time or another.

  1. We need to benchmark our competitors and do what they are doing.
  2. We need to achieve a higher level in the KM Maturity Model.
  3. We need to implement the latest technology solution.
  4. Which KM tools should we use?
  5. We installed an enterprise social network, and now we need to increase adoption.
  6. We need everyone to update their skills profile.
  7. We need to collect all documents and put them in a repository.
  8. Everyone should start collaborating on our new platform.
  9. Everyone should start editing our new wiki and blogging.
  10. Everyone should start tagging and rating content.

Without first defining clear business objectives, vision, strategies, and use cases, it is very unlikely that a KM program will succeed. Be sure to define those first, and only then proceed to implement using the 50 KM components.



Stan Garfield

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