Originally published June 29, 2015

Image for post
Image for post

Tom Davenport raised a familiar question last week: Whatever Happened to Knowledge Management? (and in the WSJ version). This generated a lot of response, as Tom subsequently commented:

Wow! I haven’t written anything on other topics that has gotten so many comments, so there is clearly still a lot of energy and emotion attached to knowledge management. There seems to be plenty of consensus that technology is not enough, or that it just wasn’t up to the task. Some of you retort that KM isn’t dead — but note that I didn’t say it was. I just argued that it’s on life support in most organizations.

Responses from others included:

  1. Is KM really dying?
  2. Gartner on KM
  3. What are your thoughts on the WSJ article written by Thomas Davenport?

This comes on the heels of a recent message I received from Steve Denning on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the SIKM Leaders Community:

Is KM flourishing? I have kind of lost touch with what is going on in KM. So I don’t really know. My attention has turned more to M than to KM, and addressing the issues that caused most of the great KM programs to fail, as outlined in my last talk for SIKM leaders back in 2011. Since 2011 I have written over 600 articles about management and innovation for Forbes, so I have been quite busy, but not explicitly in KM. It would be good to have a frank discussion of where KM stands in the world these days. I know that KM still exists, in the sense that KM programs exist, people have titles with “KM” in them, your SIKM community goes on having talks, and so on. I have to confess that my sense back in 2011 was that even then KM was no longer at the cutting edge of organizations, for the reasons spelt out in my 2011 talk. Has that changed? Does the C-suite pay any real attention to KM these days? Why? What implications does that have?

People have been saying KM is dying, dead, on life support, or irrelevant for years. Just search and you will find links going back quite a ways into the past. Here are a few examples, some of which use the same title as Tom’s post:

I was asked to participate in the KMWorld 2008 panel A105: Where in the World Is KM Going? I was unable to attend that year, but I prepared some remarks. I have updated them here to reflect changes over the past seven years. My views are based on doing knowledge management for 19 years. I am still actively practicing KM, both within and external to my firm.

When people ask me about what I do, I tell them “knowledge management,” and then I have to explain what KM is. I say that KM allows one part of an organization to take advantage of what other parts of the organization already know and have done. This can lead to innovation and better decision making, and it helps avoid reinventing the wheel and making the same mistakes over and over. People seem to understand this, and they respond that it makes sense.

The practitioners, terminology, and technology of knowledge management change over time. But the underlying need to share, innovate, reuse, collaborate, and learn does not go away.

Negative indicators for the field of KM

1. Some KM channels have slowed down or disappeared

  • Blogs — fewer being started or maintained
  • Books — fewer new ones being published
  • Communities — many local KM communities have become inactive
  • Conferences — no more Working Knowledge Research Center (which Tom used to co-lead with Larry Prusak), Braintrust, Enterprise 2.0, and a few other similar events
  • Periodicals — no more Inside Knowledge or KM Review
  • Sites — fewer are alive or maintained

2. KM programs and jobs continue to be eliminated or reduced as part of cost-cutting at major organizations

  • Some KM programs have been abolished
  • Some prominent KM thought leaders have been laid off
  • Very few Chief Knowledge Officers (CKOs) are left
  • KM still struggles to find a home in organizations, and is often moved around and added to groups which don’t understand or appreciate it

3. Technology and tools still dominate some KM programs

  • People and process elements are neglected
  • Vendor hype for tools continues to overstate the ease of implementation and the resultant benefits
  • KM is thought of as a KM system (tool), not as an ecosystem
  • KM efforts often fail to meet expectations

4. Leaders are not on board

  • They have a short attention span for business fads suggested by analysts and consultants
  • They don’t articulate a vision for how they want KM to work
  • They don’t lead by example

5. There is insufficient revenue to sustain a substantial KM practice in most large consulting firms

Positive indicators for the field of KM

1. KM communities continue to thrive

  • The SIKM Leaders Community of Practice has been in existence for 10 years, with 562 members, 121 monthly calls, and regular threads with active discussions
  • KM4Dev, many local KM communities, and many LinkedIn groups are still very active
  • At the time this article was written, the Deloitte KM community enterprise social network (ESN) group had 5,878 members

2. Many new LinkedIn posts about KM are being made

3. I regularly receive requests to present, publish, discuss, answer questions, and to be interviewed about KM, both internal and external

4. New entrants into the field of KM continue to appear in forums, conferences, and email requests sent to KM experts

5. KM jobs continue to be posted and filled. For example, here are posts in the SIKM Leaders Community

6. KM conferences continue to be held with good attendance

  • KMWorld and APQC are thriving
  • Many other conferences are held regularly

7. Universities are offering additional KM courses and KM degree programs

8. The increased use of social business tools such as enterprise social networks has improved knowledge sharing inside and across organizations

9. Communities of interest and practice continue to be created and used, including a wide variety of forms

  • Community management for customers and brand followers has bloomed
  • At the time this article was written, 20–50 new internal ESN groups were created every week at Deloitte

10. Organizations are still pursuing KM implementations

  • I receive a query about a client KM opportunity approximately every other week
  • Smaller KM consultancies continue to thrive

Observations

1. The fundamental requirements for KM don’t go away, even as organizations eliminate some KM programs. The need to share, innovate, reuse, collaborate, and learn is timeless.

2. Many IT departments don’t get the idea of KM or social business; they are trying to cut costs, consolidate, and survive. So a separate KM program is needed to champion collaboration, communities, and connections.

3. Communities are not a new concept, but they still have great potential for enabling conversations, group learning, and the asking and answering of questions. Sometimes, the old proven, but not cutting-edge, approaches work best.

4. KM is a relatively stable profession, but does not grow very much.

5. Most people have still not heard about KM.

6. Google replaces the need for some internal KM.

7. The term “knowledge management” is still around, unlike “Enterprise 2.0.” Other terms such as big data, cognitive computing, and analytics may also change or fade away in the future, but KM seems to have stubbornly survived.

8. Social business has great potential for KM, but it has to overcome problems

  • Many people are reluctant to use social tools, including most leaders
  • Enterprise social networks are viewed with skepticism: something else you have to do, a waste of time, and/or not serious
  • Internal blog and wiki usage never took off in most firms
  • Email is still the killer app for collaboration. In most organizations, 100% of the people use email, while fewer people use more modern technologies. Social tools need to integrate with email.

9. These trends have emerged in the past 10 years

  • Knowledge retention — the aging workforce will soon retire, and to take advantage of their knowledge and experience, we need creative approaches like keeping them connected to their former communities
  • Analytics — data mining, trends, statistics, and correlations should be used to make better business decisions.
  • ESNs — connecting people, giving them a voice, and allowing them to express their individual personalities increases trust and enables better collaboration.
  • Aggregation — using tags, activity streams, and API calls to deliver relevant information feeds through multiple channels.
  • Customization — allowing individuals to interact with potentially overwhelming flows of information in an optimal way, filtering out the noise and delivering just what is most needed.

10. Changing the name of KM is often suggested, but the term “knowledge management” has stuck for the past 20 years. It will probably be with us for the foreseeable future, and what we call it is not as important has how we do it.

Conclusion

Saying “KM is dying” is like saying “email is dying.” Some may be tired of it, and it may seem like yesterday’s news, but the need for KM, and the opportunity to respond to that need, are persistent, even as the supporting approaches and technologies evolve.

KM programs should continue to focus on the needs of the target audience and the associated benefits, including preventing redundant effort, avoiding repetition of mistakes, and taking advantage of the expertise and experience of others in the organization. Here are suggestions for how to keep KM alive:

1. Don’t start by rolling out a KM system

2. Understand why people don’t share their knowledge and help them to see why they should share their knowledge

3. Implement, improve, and iterate key KM processes and tools

4. Set goals, establish promotion requirements, and recognize and reward for desired knowledge sharing behaviors

5. Lead by example, practice what you preach, and model desired behaviors to show others how it’s done

What do you think? How would you answer Steve Denning’s questions?

Resources

  1. Health of KM
  2. What Happened to KM
  3. Knowledge Management Rises From The Dead by Nick Inglis
  4. Social, to Knowledge Management’s Rescue? by Jed Cawthorne
  5. March 21, 2017 SIKM Leaders Community Call with Steve Denning and Stan Garfield on The Current State of KM

Written by

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store