Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The much reported death of KM - my take...

Last week I attended David Gurteen's "Effective Knowledge Worker" workshop - a valuable and very thought provoking day! One point that came up in discussion was the "Is KM dead?" debate that seems to have been rattling around in the KM community and online for a while now. As usual never knowing when to leave alone, I thought I'd add my tuppence...

Much of this appears to have kicked off following an interview with Dave Snowden and Larry Prusak last year. Luis Suarez's post here has an excellent round-up of links and further discussion. I'm not going to attempt a comprehensive point-by-point argument here, but rather put forward some of my thoughts, particularly based on my own experience.

My first response to "KM is dead!" was to ask - "What do you mean by KM?" and indeed, this does seem to be the key to the debate. In general, those saying "Yes, KM is dead!" aren't doing KM any more, oh no. They're doing Social Media, or Knowledge Sharing, or something equally flavour-of-the-month - yay!

The other side - "No, KM's still alive" - tend to still call what they do Knowledge Management, like myself. It can't be dead, because then we'd be out of a job. Maybe your idea of KM is dead - not mine. Nuh-uh. Vive le KM!

What I'm getting at is that at some level this is all a squabble about terminology. Call it what you will, but we're all working towards the same end - improving the ability of people to be more productive, perform to a higher standard and make better decisions. We believe we can best do this through making changes in the way people develop and use knowledge.

An aside - I should make clear that this is about driving improved business results - we're not doing this to make people happier. Sometimes KM - and recently, social media - people seem to miss this point and assume empowering people, having open conversations etc. should be goals in themselves. Not so - they should all be in pursuit of higher performance. Blimey, I sound like Alan Sugar! However... it's no coincidence that happy, empowered people & high performing businesses go hand-in-glove. Aren't we lucky to be living in a day & age where we get a chance to have fun at work
and be high-powered and successful? That's the idea, anyway...

Anyway - back to my main point. Whatever we're doing in this space, it is all about changing the ways people develop & use their knowledge. Is that knowledge tacit or explicit? Can it be held in a document? Can knowledge exist at all outside of people's heads? KM experts would happily argue all of these points - hence I propose we ignore them. Does it really matter? Some people love taxonomies and file systems, others won't touch anything formally managed and controlled, preferring instead informal networks and conversations. News! Both of these are KM, and in my opinion anyone claiming to be a Knowledge Manager should acknowledge this.

This is a key point in making useful progress from this discussion - people are messy and inconsistent, and any effective approach to improving knowledge work has to recognise this. IT and IM types can find this a horrific concept - people left to their own devices will inevitably produce a mess of stuff. But people are also pretty good at resolving ambiguity and sorting the useful from the dross - if they're empowered to do so.

The flip side of this, is that some situations, problems and types of people are best dealt with through formal processes, structures and management. Yes, all you social media, Web 2.0 hipsters - some people do actually like doing things in a structured, routine manner! Crazy, I know. Not my cup of tea, but as KM experts we need an approach that embraces all the many ways of doing things, rather than imposing any one solution.

So - what I guess I'm trying to say is that KM is not a consultancy methodology, or a programming language, or a scientific theory. I don't believe it can "die", or be discredited, or debunked. No - KM is simply an approach which recognises the importance of both individuals and knowledge, and develops a wide, varied and above all pragmatic set of practices that help improve knowledge working effectiveness.

I realise I've just fallen into my own trap and developed yet another definition of KM. Not what I set out to do, but never mind - I will plough on regardless.

Going off on a slightly different tack now - I will wrap up this post soon, I promise - I'd like to address another angle of the "KM is dead" argument - the impact of past failures. It seems to be suggested that as KM has "failed" in the past, it is tainted beyond recognition. Well, for a start I don't believe it has failed - KM has delivered notable successes. More importantly, if we value knowledge - and we do - then how can we fail to manage it?

I think it's relevant to compare to other management practices here. Risk Management. Safety Management. Financial Management. All of these have a range of tools & techniques. All have had spectacular failures. (Hello, credit crunch!) But nobody argues with their basic principles - I will minimise my risks, I will increase safety, I will run my business on a sound financial basis. Why not also - I will maximise value and performance through management of knowledge?

So I believe it's incumbent on us as KM experts to embrace past failures, learn from them and promote Knowledge Management as a holistic, pragmatic way of increasing performance. If the most effective way to do this in your organisation is through managing documents and file structures, great. If it's by setting up knowledge plans, communities of practice and so on - again, great. You may drive huge improvements by effecting cultural change, implementing social tools and empowering your people - excellent! But whatever you do, focus on the individuals, the knowledge, and how your actions help to improve their way of working. That is what KM is all about.


Larry Hawes said...

This piece of your post says it all:

"What I'm getting at is that at some level this is all a squabble about terminology. Call it what you will, but we're all working towards the same end - improving the ability of people to be more productive, perform to a higher standard and make better decisions."

The tag we use to describe efforts to empower workers will change every few years. The tag isn't important; what matters is that we continue the effort.

Helen Nicol said...

I'm bored of the terminology arguments, and don't care one way or another what we call what we do. Making it easier for those we are supporting might help as KM is a totally inaccessible term. For me its about what we do. Forget the semantics, feel the business need.

From my disseration at

Tsoukas (2005) finds Nonaka and Takeuchi’s description of the “conversion” of
knowledge states erroneous, ignoring as it does “the essential ineffability of tacit
knowledge” (p410). He suggests that we cannot operationalise tacit knowledge, but
that we can begin to develop a clearer understanding of our practice and skills if we
“re-mind” ourselves of how we do things, in order to find new ways of describing our
practice. Tsoukas therefore advocates reflection as a way of understanding what it
is that makes our practice effective, in order that we may communicate this
awareness to others. Reflection may therefore help us to understand how our tacit
knowledge affects our performance without the need to define tacit knowledge in a
philosophical sense.

lwm said...

Thank you from one of the organizers of the Boston KM Forum. We have sustained 24+ meetings a year for over 6 years and like you just move on the issues of leveraging knowledge in whatever form it takes to make our enterprises function more effectively and efficiently.

I especially like you comments about how messy our thought processes are and will always be - a point I made at one of our meetings recently. Because of that messiness in our thinking and that of others we just have to keep working at the communicating and sharing processes. They will never fit into nicely constructed models because of our differences in behavior and thought.