Originally published on September 19, 2017

Original Sins

In 1998, in The Eleven Deadliest Sins Of Knowledge Management (California Management Review Vol. 40, №3, pages 265–275) Liam Fahey and Laurence Prusak listed 11 errors made in the practice of KM:

  1. Emphasizing knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow
  2. Viewing knowledge as existing predominantly outside of the heads of individuals
  3. Not understanding that a fundamental intermediate purpose of managing knowledge is to create shared context
  4. Paying little heed to the role and importance of tacit knowledge
  5. Disentangling knowledge from its uses
  6. Downplaying thinking and reasoning
  7. Focusing on the past and the present and not the future
  8. Failing to recognize the importance of experimentation
  9. Substituting technological contact for human interface
  10. Seeking to develop direct measures of knowledge
  1. Emphasizing content artifacts instead of knowledge flow.
  2. Believing knowledge can exist outside the heads of individuals.
  3. Believing that creating shared context is not an important milestone in the process of managing knowledge.
  4. Failing to understand the role and significance of tacit knowledge.
  5. Confusing information creation with applying knowledge to new situations.
  6. Overlooking the importance of thinking and reasoning to the KM process.
  7. Documenting the past and present, and ignoring the future.
  8. Failing to acknowledge the importance of experimentation and failure.
  9. Substituting technological contact for face-to-face interactions.
  10. Attempting to measure knowledge using the metrics of balance sheets.

Original Sins Revisited

In 2007, I asked Larry Prusak to revisit it. Question to Larry: What are your current thoughts about your article “The Eleven Deadliest Sins of KM?” Answer from Larry:

  1. Error 2: This is also still an issue, though we have made much progress in it. There can’t be too many organizations these days who still feel that large collections of documents is the best way to work with knowledge, at least not in the US or Europe.
  2. Error 3: I would write this one a bit differently today. While knowledge is still produced and absorbed by people the distinctions between where the knowledge actually resides isn’t always worth fighting over.
  3. Error 4: This is as true as ever, even more so with virtuality and all its discontents gaining adherents. Context is a good synonym for knowledge itself, and is best (perhaps only) created through live give and take, etc. It can’t be done well, if at all, through email and other e-exchanges.
  4. Error 5: I think too much has been made about the distinctions between tacit and explicit knowledge, all those models for moving one to another, etc. All knowledge is always both tacit AND explicit.
  5. Error 6: This one is also still true. KM in general follows pragmatism as a philosophy in not believing in distinctions between knowing and action. Isolating knowledge as a thing apart is mostly pointless in business, as contrasted with academics.
  6. Error 7: Well, anyone who thinks that anti-intellectualism isn’t a very strong force in American and UK culture is just out to lunch. If anything it’s gotten stronger with the continuous use of varied media like IM, Google, etc. to replace real reflection and serious reading. I travel all the time and in contrast to years ago, I almost never see people reading anything substantial while flying. I’m told by friends who teach MBAs at the “top” schools that they can’t get their students to read anything not online.
  7. Error 8: This is also part of a bigger discussion that many management theorists and practitioners are having about how to escape the iron cage of short-termism. Many of us think that every executive needs to be more mindful of all those Black Swans out there waiting to strike. I haven’t any idea how to change this but change it must!
  8. Error 9: Rewarding failure is never easy; it is never going to be too popular. But we must do it to have a culture of knowledge growth. How else can any organization learn if it is afraid to do and think things? So this sin is still valid.
  9. Error 10: This one has waned in commission. While technophiles still abound, they have less salience in KM discussions where they once dominated. No one thinks anymore that technology doesn’t have a real role in any KM work, but no one I know still thinks that KM is mainly a problem needing a technological fix to cure (well, maybe a few deluded souls at some technology companies).
  10. Error 11: Once again, I think this battle is won. There is some great research being done on what actually can be measured in regards to knowledge activities, and more will be done in the future. But no one anymore tries to measure knowledge, per se. This is one we managed to kill.

More KM Sins

1. 20 knowledge-sharing sins by Stan Garfield

  1. Sending private emails or private ESN messages with queries
  2. Removing people from the list of recipients of a message
  3. Leaders not using a tool effectively
  4. Avoiding direct use of knowledge-sharing tools
  5. Talking but not acting
  6. Using an ESN like an email distribution list
  7. Using channels outside of an ESN for interactions that started there
  8. Providing limited information about what is being sought in a query
  9. Doing only what is requested
  10. Withholding the names of people whose identity should be visible
  11. Not sharing openly
  12. Ignoring questions in ESN groups and failing to reply to email requests
  13. Disparaging existing tools, wanting to jump on the bandwagon of the latest trendy technology
  14. Hosting con calls and webinars ineffectively
  15. Posting the same message to multiple ESN groups, appearing to be spam to many of the members
  16. Creating an ESN group, but never answering any questions in it
  17. Posting to an ESN group just to make it appear active, so it won’t be deleted
  18. Promising to make an ESN group active, but not actually doing it
  19. Posting mostly trivial items
  1. Fear
  2. Placing a greater emphasis on technology than people
  3. Not communicating enough on the issues
  4. Not approaching Knowledge Management as a management issue
  5. Not identifying the departments most valuable holders of knowledge and key innovators
  6. Reluctance to distinguish between data or information on the one hand and knowledge on the other
  7. Emphasizing knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow
  8. Viewing knowledge as existing predominantly outside the heads of individuals
  9. Not understanding that a shared context is fundamental to knowledge management
  10. Paying too little heed to the role and importance of tacit knowledge
  11. Disentangling knowledge from IT issues
  12. Downplaying thinking and reasoning
  13. Focusing on the past and the present but not the future
  14. Failing to recognize the importance of experimentation
  15. Substituting technological contact for human interface
  16. Seeking to develop direct measures of knowledge
  1. Envy: “XYZ’s KM, CoP, SNA program has just appeared in a news article. We would like one too.”
  2. Wrath: “I don’t want to WASTE time with any planning. Just do it!!!”
  3. Sloth: “I want all you underlings to share what you know. But don’t bother me about it.”
  4. Avarice: “Damn right I want to get organizational benefits. Invest to get them? Never…”
  5. Gluttony: “I want a million documents in the database. No! Make that a billion. More is better!”
  6. Lust: “I just love messing around with vendors & consultants. Meetings, workshops, everything. Just don’t hang around in the morning.”
  1. Lack of Executive Buy-In
  2. Poor Onboarding
  3. No Cultural Buy-In
  4. No Reward For Engagement
  5. No Owner
  6. Content Becomes Stale
  1. Confusing correlation with causation and the paucity of good data: Statistical tails wagging the dogs of truth — We can’t trust the data, but neither can we trust the correlation other than as an indicator of something we should pay attention to.
  2. The old ways are evil, I bear the torch of truth and enlightenment: The Popinjay — Condemning past or future practice based on evidence or theory is valid; so is offering a new way of thinking. The objection is to creating a dichotomy between the two and being highly selective in picking cases (without doing other than book or Internet searches) to support a simplistic proposition.
  3. Anything requiring you to attain levels of enlightenment: The Cultists — True religious enlightenment is achieved by years of dedication, it cannot be acquired in a simplistic training program. Scientific insight and understanding is similarly the product of years of study and practice. Both take part in a social setting that welcomes criticism and while rewarding status does not allow that status to prevent learning. The various popular management movements that attempt to ape either or both to generate training and consultancy revenue should be wholeheartedly condemned.
  4. Taking something of value, but then seeking to industrialize it: Industrialization of the craft — Development of skill takes time and effort. Tools can be industrialized; people interventions involving judgement cannot be.
  5. Using language without meaning: A lick of new paint — The addition of key words that appear to have symbolic power as tokens of meaning. The big one at the moment, especially in Agile circles is the use of the word “Lean” as noun, pronoun, adjective and even verb and adverb.
  6. The dangers of categorization: Little Boxes — Creating simplistic categorizing models is cool in stable, fully-known situations, but in complexity or uncertainty environments it is dangerous. With people, it means we can damage personal development, and we can also miss completely capabilities that we didn’t know we needed at the time of the categorization. Myers-Briggs has little academic credibility, but provides the same utility as astrology.
  7. Issues of evidence and judgement and a false dichotomy: Trials need tribulations — A single intervention using a novel approach with a lot of attention is never going to scale and it does not constitute evidence. Trials that are reported to have worked, in the main, have suffered insufficient tribulation to be resilient.
  8. Against essentialism, defining potential through action: ‘Essential’ flows — In managing culture, we are not creating, designing or determining an essence that will give us predictive or controllable behavior. Attempts to do so will drive the real culture further underground, with the surface manifestation repeating back to you the platitudes of your value statements. Humans are very good at appearing to confirm with the verbiage of power while continuing to practice what matters to them. In practice companies depend on this authentic inauthenticity to survive. The irony is that if it wasn’t for people’s willingness to work for customers and for colleagues despite the process, not because of it, most companies would fail a lot faster.
  9. Trying to get to a single causal line of reasoning: Roots determine routes? — Let’s assume we accept that statins reduce the risk of heart attack; cool, take them. But we also know that Type II Diabetes is one side effect of statin prescription, and we know one of the reasons for that is the way statins work on the pancreas. Now if you have Type II, then you are at increased risk of heart failure, so guess what happens? You get prescribed statins. Each individual causal pathway creates a prescriptive guideline. What is really needed is an artisan approach in which the multiple interactions between patient support groups and medical staff are taken into account.
  10. You can’t reduce or aggregate a complex system and trying is wrong a priori: Deal with the system as a whole please — SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is not exceptional. It’s simply following in the same path as balanced score cards; KPIs; mergers based on structure, not people; etc. The automation and mechanization of the engineering metaphor has dominated thinking for the last few decades and it is predicated on aggregation and reduction. Things like SAFe and Six Sigma are simply the last attempts to get a tired and inappropriate philosophy to work, but doing things that have failed with more intensity in the hope that this time they will work.
  11. Avoiding uncertainty and anti-intellectualism: Then kill the messenger … — A plea to senior decision makers, and a pretty direct attack on common practice. If you allow yourself to get caught up in meetings, decision making, and the like to the point where you no longer have time to think and reflect, then you have damaged yourself and downstream, the organization that you lead. It also shows you are not leading well, as you have too little time. Paying attention is not the same thing as being busy. Some of the best executives I know have brains that can sense there is something they need to spend time on. Some of the worst make a virtue of ignorance. It’s not enough to simply act; you also have to think. It’s not enough to think; you also have to act. They go together, and the more senior you are, the more you need to be comfortable with both; neither can be fully delegated. So, if someone comes along and offers you a solution that doesn’t require you to think, then kill the messenger.
  1. Shrinking Violet Syndrome — Another “sin” that stifles the supply of shared knowledge in a network, based on a feeling of false humility, and that you have nothing useful to share.
  2. Not-Invented-Here Syndrome — This syndrome impacts the demand for knowledge sharing; the view that your organisation or team has a unique set of problems that can’t be fixed by adopting other people’s solutions. Besides (the thinking goes) why use someone else’s solutions when you can gain kudos for inventing your own?
  3. Tom Tom Syndrome — Also known as Real-Men-Don’t-Ask-For-Directions Syndrome. A reluctance to ask for help when you’re lost, due to a fear of being seen to be incompetent. This “muddling along” approach is another barrier that stifles knowledge sharing by reducing demand.
  4. Lacknowledgement Syndrome — The perception that by sharing good practice there is somehow a “lack of acknowledgement”, and a suspicion that someone else will take the credit for your hard work.
  5. Lock-it-Away Syndrome — Here, a potential solution, idea or example of good practice is not shared, either because it is never quite finished, or because everything produced by the organisation or team is locked down by default due to security policies.
  6. Hamster-on-the-Wheel Syndrome — This “sin” comes down to time — or lack of it. A feeling that you’re just too busy going round in circles to stop and share what you’re doing.
  1. Shrinking Violet syndrome: Where people don’t believe that they have anything to share.
  2. On the Web syndrome: Where people confuse capture with sharing — capture it once, then it’s shared forever.
  3. Communities of Practically Everything syndrome: Where communities are incorrectly perceived as a panacea.
  4. Not Invented Here syndrome: Where people believe their culture and company is unique, with unique problems and solutions suggested by external sources will not work.
  5. Ignorance is Bliss syndrome: Where lack of curiosity, or inflated self-confidence reduces the demand for learning.
  6. Real men don’t ask for directions/TomTom syndrome: Where asking for help is perceived as a sign of weakness.

KM Pitfalls

  1. Focusing on technology
  2. Forgetting to engage the constituents
  3. Doing too much studying and planning, and not enough prototyping and piloting
  4. Forgetting to reuse what others have already learned and implemented
  5. Focusing on collecting documents or updating skills profiles
  6. Being gripped by anxiety
  7. Never meeting in person
  8. Frequently reorganizing, including moving KM from one organization to another
  9. Relying on maturity models and benchmarking
  10. Using the term “best practices
  11. Reporting metrics for the sake of metrics
  12. Becoming certified in KM
  13. Rolling out tools and driving adoption
  14. Using buzzwords and corporate speak
  15. Telling others to “do as I say, not as I do”
  16. Being secretive
  17. Making it difficult to find information and resources
  18. Ignoring the need to build trust
  19. Pushing content
  20. Refusing to learn
  21. Believing that KM is dead
  22. Believing that incentives don’t work
  23. Seeing social as frivolous
  24. Allowing uncontrolled creation of communities and ESN groups
  25. Trying to eliminate all risks
  26. Trying to be like Google and Amazon
  27. Saying “we need our own”
  28. Believing you don’t have time
  29. Saying, “we should work ourselves out of a job”
  30. Believing that bigger is better for organizations, and that smaller is better for community membership
  31. Trying to make people do things
  32. Describing everything as a community
  33. Worrying that IP will be stolen
  34. Using the DIKW pyramid
  35. Denying that the 90–9–1 rule applies
  36. Trying to compute the ROI of KM
  37. Archiving content after 90 days
  38. Seeking a new name for KM
  39. Starting KM without first determining objectives
  1. Doing KM for KM’s sake
  2. Relying on top leadership to drive KM
  3. Failing to adapt
  4. Allowing misconceptions to breed
  1. It’s just a file system!
  2. Everything is miscellaneous
  1. Search tools are inadequate
  2. Access rules are not well defined
  3. The documentation update process is not properly integrated
  4. The system contains unnecessary documentation
  1. Disregard in Demonstrating Benefits
  2. Poor Consideration of Time
  3. Abandonment of Tacit Knowledge
  4. Failure to Meet User Needs
  5. Inability (or Lack of Willingness) to Acknowledge Errors
  1. KM is never embedded in the business
  2. We don’t focus on high value knowledge
  1. KM is never embedded in the business
  2. You fail to secure effective senior management support
  3. You don’t focus on high-value knowledge
  4. You fail to show measurable benefits
  5. The four enablers of KM are not given equal attention: roles, processes, technology, governance
  6. Only parts of the KM solution are implemented
  7. You make KM too difficult for people
  8. KM is not implemented as a change program
  9. The KM team preaches only to the converted
  10. The KM team fails to engage with key stakeholders
  11. The KM team has the wrong competence
  1. Let’s Put the Personnel Manual Online!
  2. None Dare Call it Knowledge
  3. Every Man a Knowledge Manager
  4. Justification by Faith
  5. Restricted Access
  6. Bottoms Up!

KM Mistakes

1. The Biggest KM Mistakes Organizations Make — and How to Avoid Them by Lauren Trees (interview with me)

  1. Ignoring information architecture
  2. Favoring high-tech search over low-tech curation
  3. Always upgrading
  4. Paying too much attention to trends
  1. Mistake №2: Starting with a low-profile project
  2. Mistake №3: Not changing the compensation scheme to reward teamwork
  3. Mistake №4: Building the grand database in the sky to house all your company’s knowledge
  4. Mistake №5: Assuming someone else will lead the charge
  1. Failure to conduct a pre-strategy assessment
  2. Building a KM strategy around a knowledge management system or application
  3. Developing knowledge management systems in a vacuum
  4. Retaining the wrong human resources to execute the KM strategy
  5. Not collecting data to measure for success
  6. Lack of organization-wide KM marketing and education
  1. Your system only focuses on knowledge collection
  2. There’s no incentive for employees to use your knowledge management system
  3. Implementing a generic knowledge management system
  4. Constantly layering new software over old to fix problems
  5. Not updating the system
  1. Critical thinking is for academics!
  2. Size is everything
  3. Knowledge resources are assets, just like any other organizational asset
  1. Poor planning — and inadequate resources
  2. Lack of accountability
  3. Lack of customization

Causes of KM Failures

1. Top 7 reasons why KM implementations fail by Nick Milton

  1. The KM team does not have the right people to deliver change
  2. The KM team preach only to the choir
  3. Only parts of the KM solution are implemented
  4. KM is never embedded into the business
  5. There is no effective high-level sponsorship
  6. KM is not introduced with a business focus
  1. Cultural barriers
  2. Lack of involvement from staff
  3. Technology did not deliver as expected
  4. KM did not deliver the expected benefits
  5. KM was taking too long to deliver
  6. Too much focus on technology platforms and not enough on incentives and cultural elements
  7. The Company was sold to government, which had no interest whatsoever
  8. No push or support from the Executive Committee
  9. No customer demand reported
  10. New Top Management — Not interested in KM
  1. No Incentive to Use the System
  2. Not Capturing Knowledge from Professional Services Consultants
  3. No Dedicated KM Team
  4. Out of Date Content
  5. Gaps in Your Knowledge Base
  1. Inadequate management support
  2. Improper planning, design, coordination, and evaluation
  3. Inadequate skill of knowledge managers and workers
  4. Problems with organisational culture 6. Improper organisational structure
  1. Lack of relevance, quality, and usability
  2. Overemphasis on formal learning, systematization, and determinant needs
  3. Improper implementation of technology
  4. Improper budgeting and excessive costs
  5. Lack of responsibility and ownership
  6. Loss of knowledge from staff defection and retirement
  1. Inadequate Budgeting and Cost Expectations
  2. Lack of participation from all levels of a corporation
  3. Inadequate processes and technology
  4. Lack of Knowledge and Resources
  5. Lack of education and understanding of KM
  6. KM does not become ingrained into the corporations work culture
  7. Lack of a Knowledge Sharing Environment
  8. Lack of metrics to measure the impact of KM on the corporation or insufficient/incorrect metrics being captured
  9. Lack of monitoring and controls in place to ensure the knowledge is relevant and is current and accurate
  1. Management may not support the initiative beyond saying it must be done.
  2. People may be afraid to share knowledge because they feel it gives them a hedge against layoffs.
  3. People may not wish to expand their knowledge in case it leads to more work for them.
  4. Just because there are plans to implement KM or even awareness that KM is an important competitive business function does not guarantee success.
  5. There may be a dispute or disconnect between management and IT about responsibility for deployment and maintenance of KM.
  6. Employees may feel that it is up to management to make the decision about how KM will be deployed.
  7. These barriers may be tougher to surmount in the small to medium business arena simply because of the time factor; the existing employees and owner/manager already have full plates and do not have the financial or human resources to throw at the initiative from start to finish.
  1. Knowledge management is a tool
  2. Everyone is not held accountable to “use it, fix it, or flag it”
  3. Knowledge sharing is not a behavior that people do as part of their work every day
  4. People don’t change their habits and don’t actually share their knowledge
  1. Organizational structure
  2. Lack of a measurement system
  3. Lack of transparency about motives
  4. Lack of incentives to use the system
  1. Low benefit to suppliers
  2. Low benefit to customers
  1. Power
  2. Organizational structure
  3. Measurement systems
  4. Organizational culture
  1. Get specific
  2. Use business language
  3. Engage staff
  • Frank Miller agrees: “Knowledge is the uniquely human capability of making meaning from information — ideally in relationships with other human beings. Knowledge is, after all, what we know. And what we know can’t be commodified. Perhaps if we didn’t have the word ‘knowledge’ and were constrained to say ‘what I know’, the notion of ‘knowledge capture’ would be seen for what it is — nonsense!”
  • The inescapable conclusion of this analysis of the ‘knowledge management’ idea is that it is, in large part, a management fad, promulgated mainly by certain consultancy companies, and the probability is that it will fade away like previous fads. It rests on two foundations: the management of information — where a large part of the fad exists (and where the ‘search and replace marketing’ phenomenon is found), and the effective management of work practices. However, these latter practices are predicated upon a Utopian idea of organizational culture in which the benefits of information exchange are shared by all, where individuals are given autonomy in the development of their expertise, and where ‘communities’ within the organization can determine how that expertise will be used. Sadly, we are a long way removed from that Utopia: whatever businesses claim about people being their most important resource, they are never reluctant to rid themselves of that resource (and the knowledge it possesses) when market conditions decline.

Videos and Presentations

1. Revisiting the 11 Deadly Sins of Knowledge Management by K.Gopalakrishnan — discussion with the Knowledge Community of Chennai

  1. Too smart for your own good
  2. Giving your customers solutions
  3. Loving your search engine
  4. Multi-channel service
  1. How well you’re connected to the business focus of the organization
  2. How well you’re connected to the interests of the different stakeholder groups
  3. What kind of resource or competency you have
  1. Lack of a definition that defines the scope of knowledge management — does it include knowledge creation?


  1. Proven Practices for Promoting a Knowledge Management Program by Stan Garfield — Chapter 13: Avoid the Top 40 Pitfalls
  2. The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Embedding Effective Knowledge Management in your Organization by Nick Milton and Patrick Lambe — Chapter 3: Barriers and Pitfalls
  3. Knowledge Management in Practice by Anthony Rhem — Chapter 17: Why do Knowledge Management Programs and Projects Fail?
  4. Knowledge Management: Perspectives and Pitfalls by Peter Holdt Christensen
  5. Why Knowledge Management Fails: Lessons from a Case Study by Ivy Chan and Patrick Y.K. Chau

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

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