Originally posted 11-Apr-24

Stan Garfield
6 min readApr 12, 2024

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Bob Buckman is one of the very few corporate CEOs to directly champion knowledge management, write about it, and actively participate in KM professional organizations such as APQC.

He had a keen interest in knowledge management and knowledge sharing. Bob practiced and led these from 1984 until he retired in 2016, both within his own company and through teaching others around the world.

From 1977–2000 he was the Chief Executive of Buckman Laboratories, a leader in the specialty chemicals market. Bob was President and Chairman of the Board of The Applied Knowledge Group, Inc., a professional services firm, from 1999–2016.

For more about Bob, see Profiles in Knowledge.

Book

KM’s father figure: Robert Buckman: ‘Chaos makes serendipity’ in the KM world — interviewed by Jeff Angus

No one can lay claim to originating the term knowledge management, but a big share of credit goes to the person who first turned the concept into a highly functional, industrial-grade reality: Robert Buckman, retired CEO of Buckman Labs, a Memphis, Tenn.-based chemical company with approximately 1,400 employees in 80 countries.

Q: Your company was founded in 1945; when did you start applying KM to your business?

A: We somehow got stuck with this term knowledge management. We never used that term. We don’t have a CKO. We have a lot of people who are “knowledge officers” because that’s what they do. We started that work seriously in 1984, fooling around with using desktop computers as tools. Desktops didn’t work out well because we wanted to have our knowledgeable people in the field with our customers. Laptops, even the 17-pound ones, were better and freed people from having to be at the office but still have access to all the knowledge of the people at the company.

Q: What was your goal with this KM experiment?

A: We were trying to radically improve our abilities to solve customer problems better and faster, to redefine our competitive position. It was essential — it still is — that we redefine the time equation of work. Back then, we would ship Ph.D.s all over the world to transmit knowledge. It wasn’t viable. It was very expensive, but worse, it didn’t move fast enough. Really, what we do this for is to redefine the speed at which we get work done.

We had a breakthrough in 1992. We built systems for transmitting knowledge on top of CompuServe forums, threaded discussions.

Q: What were the first benefits?

A: We radically improved our speed of new product development. Before it had been 13 to 18 percent a year new products, and with this CompuServe setup we were at 30 to 35 percent.

Q: So you measure effectiveness as a new-product-sales ratio?

A: Not anymore. That’s a good metric for a product-driven organization, but now we’re knowledge-driven. We’ve evolved to a different relationship with our customers, more of a partnership. We don’t just ship them chemicals, we ship them knowledge of how to use them, or sometimes we take over a whole operation for a customer, assuming responsibility for their technical department, equip it, staff it. We measure our effectiveness in getting $X per month on a product, not $X per pound.

But when you build that kind of company, you have to do it on a basis of trust, or you create no value. If you hire the right people, 99.9 percent of them want to do the right thing. And when that’s the case, you don’t design systems on the basis of the 0.1 percent who don’t. Open systems make the smoke blowers obvious, and they soon disappear. The problem with so many organizations is they’ve become involved in command and control and they’re too afraid to be able to benefit. Chaos makes serendipity.

Q: So in this permafrost economy, is KM a luxury you can afford?

A: You have to think about using knowledge to accelerate speed to reduce costs in this environment where you have no pricing ability. You have to get better teamwork function, collaborate better, no matter what tools you use to get there. It’s a little easier for us than most companies because we’ve done it before, but we’ve never needed it as much as we need it in this environment.

Technology still imposes limits. Microsoft has to figure out how to get effective people collaboration in Office, for example. The key thing is to figure out how to redefine the timing questions of work. If we don’t do that, we won’t get the cost improvements that will improve our standard of living, and all the white-collar work will move offshore.

Those are the issues we have to figure out. We’re going to have continual economic pressure to do things better and faster.

A Conversation with Bob Buckman by Luis Suarez

“Don’t be afraid to share what you know, because you know it better than anyone else!”

“Don’t be afraid to steal stuff — Reuse!”

“In the future we will spend more money in the transfer of knowledge than in hardware and software!”

A successful KM strategy is that one that helps improve the way knowledge workers share information internally so that we can then start collaborating and sharing our knowledge with customers:

  • Defining expectations from the customer
  • Defining how customers would measure you
  • And asking ourselves, are we capable? (Understanding the value of reputation!)

Bob mentioned how crucial the role of librarians is for knowledge management, especially for the case of small businesses competing with much larger corporations. These librarians should oversee full text knowledge bases that capture all the critical knowledge that other knowledge workers are sharing.

He also mentioned how crucial communities will become in helping spread that knowledge and empower knowledge workers to collaborate with one another. The more cross-enterprise the community, the more innovation will be taking place, all of this by creating a knowledge-sharing culture using technology as an enabler, to help foster global reach.

Why KM Is More Fun Than Restructuring by Carla O’Dell

The Knowledge that resides in the heads of your people is the most dynamic asset that you have. It is always changing, always growing in both quantity and quality. A key question is how should it move to satisfy the needs of the organization? Because it is this dynamic movement that results in new value creation.

In a typical Command and Control Structure knowledge moves up and down the organization in a sequential manner from one person to another. But this movement creates its own problems.

Knowledge deteriorates as it moves through different individuals in a sequential manner. Information is gathered on the front line, passed to some manager so that he can put his perception on the situation and so forth up the line, going from inbox to inbox until it gets to some guru somewhere, who puts his infinite wisdom on the situation and sends it back to the front line. No wonder there is confusion. In addition, this sequential communication model is a very slow process. While we cannot eliminate the command-and-control management structure in most organizations, we can poke holes in the silos and establish a networked model of collaboration.

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Stan Garfield

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