Originally published May 17, 2019
The thing I want to find out is: “What is the most confronting and challenging question for the knowledge management community? What is our biggest fear?”
Now “Is KM dead?” is not allowed. That question has reached a similar stage to the Monty Python Dead Parrot Sketch for me (“probably pining for the fjords”).
I am interested in opportunities. But I am also interested in fears. Because people don’t want to talk about them and yet they are hugely important, and they drive a lot of human behavior. I often think that people are more defined and driven by their biggest fears (of being poor, being alone, being incompetent, getting sick, dying) than their biggest hopes. So it is important to acknowledge and understand these powerful impulses rather than deny them.
I don’t want to stay with fears (and I do want to talk about hopes) but I do want to start there.
So here are a few to get things started. Some KM fears:
- No one powerful cares about knowledge and what we do any more (if they ever did).
- The technologists are actually right and people don’t actually matter.
- We end up in cycle of applying the same partially successful techniques to the same organizational problems forever (like Groundhog Day).
Here are some of the replies:
How do you make KM part of the acquisition decision?
My fear is that much KM will fall short of expectations if we ignore the people component. But the people component is far more than just traditional change management, but about motivations, passions, etc. which is transformational change management, by my definition.
- KM people are laid off, KM programs are scaled back, or KM programs are totally eliminated.
- KM never progresses beyond product implementation/migration, fads, and me-too mimicking.
- KM gets stuck repeating familiar platitudes, superficial efforts, and simplistic approaches.
- KM programs become mired in empire building, turf wars, political struggles.
- Senior leaders never move past giving lip service to KM; they don’t really care about it, don’t inspect its use, and don’t use it themselves.
What I hear the most is that “we put in a system (e.g., SharePoint, Confluence, Slack) but we can’t get people to use it to collaborate.”
I believe that the most confronting question that we face is “Aren’t all people doing KM already?” Because for the sake of trying to create engagement, we often cry “Yes!” and then fundamentally undermine the reason for our existence.
We fear questions without certain, black and white answers. We lack the skill (or courage?) to work polarities and “wicked questions” which ask us to find a way to work with seemingly opposing demands and conditions. We struggle to shift our own mindsets while hoping to shift others’. We worry that at the moment when KM could really make a difference, we don’t practice leadership, even if absent in our leaders.
I fear that the push for political correctness will supersede the quest for knowledge and thus turn KM into a discipline espousing political slogans and such.
What I fear most is that KM is seen by knowledge workers and management as something ‘extra’ besides the primary work to be done (which is being productive and make money). The fear that knowledge workers and management are focusing on today only: knowledge workers producing deliverables and meet deadlines, management as ‘firefighters’ (reacting to ad hoc issues).
While management express their commitment regarding KM and agrees that the organization needs to learn, in practice their commitment is not always noticeable. In fact, knowledge workers are mainly assessed by how successful they applied their knowledge (in meeting deadlines and quality of delivered work) and less by how they helped the organization to actually learn (at least that’s my experience).
Our experience in the Canadian public service was striking and disheartening. As some know, I was chairperson of the Canadian Interdepartmental KM Forum for over 16 years and we saw hundreds of KM initiatives. Only 3 initiatives were successful: not a very good track record. All the rest may have accomplished something (IT, templates, Knowledge Audits, studies, etc.) before fading into obscurity but with little or no business value, lasting effect or organizational awareness of the initiative’s existence. I find that just plain weird for a domain like KM that is and should be transformative. I confess to still being amazed that KMers do not learn from the past.
My sense of knowledge management grew out of a range of inter-related experiences. One of these experiences was in relation to the book production industry (from content creation to content consumption workflows).
During that time, I came to be aware that after the invention of the Gutenberg Printing press in roughly 1453 and the manufacture of the bible with again roughly 1200 pages, it took about 100 years (perhaps slightly less) for the concept of a table of contents to be included in the production of books. So from the concept of assisting readers navigate content to realizing the reality of this, 100 years. And the social effect — it worked towards the exact opposite effect of what Gutenberg hoped to enable — the centralization of power around Rome and the Catholic Church.
And, so, we are now perhaps 40–50 years into a transformation of the manufacture of multi modal content of a scale of complexity way, way beyond the typographic world of the traditional print industry. And what might our equivalent table of content be that might take 100 years to come into being?
One would have to put up there that this so-called table of content must surely be related to “monitoring systems”. Energy, ecological, water quality, notions of science-based sustainability. monitoring systems as tables of content, with real time feedback loops at various levels of focus that allows people options to modify behavior, adapt and get on.
It might sound slightly utopian, perhaps even politically correct. But there is a required sense of humility if this quest for developing contemporary tables of content becomes understood as a knowledge management challenge.
KM becoming too insular — looking inwards too much, instead of looking out to capitalize on new opportunities. Talking among ourselves too much, instead of talking to our stakeholders and learning to speak in their language, in terms they care about. Focusing too much on what KM is, and not on what KM can do for the organization.
- That we don’t practice as we preach, don’t somehow make explicit our tacit knowledge for future sharing/resource. I have to say, though, that Stan is an outstanding example of what to do in this community. I see in my local KM communities that is lacking, and I could probably help pick up the slack on it. They are very good at sharing when we are all together in the room, but very poor on capturing what we learned for anyone not in the room. We need to set an example for others, plus of course we could use the benefits.
- That the work we are doing get absorbed by other departments/professions. From where I sit, process improvement and innovation are the two areas that are increasing. And I know there are others. This is not necessarily a bad thing: a lot of methods dovetail nicely with KM. But I am seeing Directors of Knowledge Management become Directors of Knowledge and Innovation, and then at some point the methods of KM become less of a focus and become lost.
- On the flip side, that the work we are doing does NOT get absorbed by other departments/professions. We need to stay open and include everyone, and KM works best if everyone plays along.
- That as people leave organizations, we do not capture and transfer their knowledge successfully, to the point where the organization is significantly weakened. I think about one client where one senior professional worked very independently and largely did not contribute to the existing knowledge systems. When they asked him to retire at age 67, he was too angry to be willing to pass along any more knowledge. Fortunately in this case we had an assistant able to work with him gently to get the key documents and client information, but it was not easy. There should have been a whole protocol of working through materials kept in off-site storage and client records which we could not follow with him. This of course points to on-going knowledge activities (not just at retirement), change management, and people management skills. Some of which were sorely lacking in this case when I arrived..
- That in some places (such as here in Canada), KM never does gain full traction. Here it is big in accounting firms, law firms and law departments, PR firms, and consultancies, but I am not seeing it a lot beyond that. What is the cause of this? A PR problem? Or are we too spread out geographically so that word of the methodology does not spread the way it does in other countries?
What I fear about KM is that we, as practitioners, risk losing sight of Peter Drucker’s insight (knowledge creates value in the firm in two principal ways: it drives innovation and increases productivity), and fail to maintain focus on driving out measurable value from our KM work.