knowledge management

Making knowledge management manageable


Heavy industry of KM

I’ve been thinking about knowledge management (KM) over the last few days as we have a new KM programme kicking off in BT. This is good news as KM has languished a bit over recent months.

Inevitably, the meetings have begun to happen and the latest set of KM papers are starting to circulate for comments/sign-off etc. (… good news is they are in a wiki for anyone in the company to edit/comment upon 🙂 ).

The problem for me is that we are also at the stage where the enormity and complexity of the task ahead becomes apparent in an organisation as large as BT. The temptation is to wheel out the old heavy industry KM powerpoint decks so the strategy becomes so complex that the whole things grinds to a halt and becomes a long series of turgid meetings discussing impenetrable diagrams and concepts.

The truth is, I don’t think we have any chance whatsoever of managing knowledge in BT – if it’s actually possible to manage knowledge anywhere. What we can do is help people to help themselves and others as simply as possible.

It got me thinking about what we can reasonably expect to achieve and which would actually make a difference to the way people share what they know.

If we could achieve three things, I think we will have made more progress in the field of KM than we’ve ever managed before. Those things are:

  • expose in the network who people are and what they are interested in/working on/thinking about …
  • provide a way to search through the above and then offer a simple mechanism to connect like-minded people together in networks
  • automatically expose the activities of individuals to those in their networks through activity streams.

That’s it … simples!

Well … possibly not as simple as it sounds … but achievable at least.

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Here today, gone tomorrow …

I’ve seen lots of articles recently asking whether social media is the death of knowledge management (KM) … I’ve even written about myself, albeit nearly a year ago now.

In this context I was struck by an answer in Computer World from John Seely Brown to a question about what he learnt at Xerox (thanks  to @jobsworth for the heads-up):

“First, wisdom is often the biggest obstacle to innovation. In a rapidly changing world, the assumptions that underlie our past learning may now be invalid. So, an idea that didn’t work five years ago may work fantastically now.

Second, we tend to hold on to assumptions longer than we should. Often, by letting go of old assumptions, whole new vistas are created.”

I’ve always felt that traditional KM practices are too slow moving and try to impose an overly simplistic and controlling model onto what is essentially a chaotic, vibrant, real-time reality. Sometimes, it feels like KM is trying to take a series of still-shots of this real-time reality to present back to users who have already moved on – and when you put the still shots together, you get a jerky and incomplete picture.

I think John Seely Brown makes a great point – the world is changing so fast that keeping stuff for future use is becoming less and less valuable and can blinker our future potential. It challenges many of the precepts upon which KM is built.

As the world has become more and more real-time, so the balance has shifted away from re-use of existing information to the notion of relationships. The need for knowledge now is what has driven social media practices which, not only acknowledge the chaos of humanity, but embrace it to deliver distilled, real-time value. It’s not formally organised, it’s often not pretty, but it seems to work.

The million dollar question is how do you strike the right balance between learning from history and living in the past?

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Social media and knowledge management

A tweet from Steve Ellwood pointing out an article about IBM and the relationship between social media and KM on KnowledgeBoard reminded me of a paper I wrote on the subject in March last year. I re-read it and have included some extracts below …

It is possible to divide knowledge management practice into ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ activities. Formal activities are often the tangible deliverables associated with an articulated knowledge management strategy, and might include such things as evaluation of business processes to ensure that knowledge is injected into those processes at the decision points along it.

Informal activities are associated with the more intangible enablers of knowledge sharing, typically associated with culture and behaviour and, being hard to define and deliver, often appear as ‘platitudes’ in a knowledge management strategy with no clear actions and no obvious deliverables. A further complication associated with these more informal activities is that they are not obviously ‘owned’ within the business and, being enterprise wide, are normally beyond the scope of an individual area of strategic focus.

Social media tools have the capacity to address these intangible enablers without the need for formal organisational ‘ownership’ by allowing ‘community’ ownership of information, networks and channels.

Participation by users in a social media-rich environment both engender, and rely upon, environmental factors such as:

  • communication through conversation rather than monologue
  • participation at an individual level, not an organisational level
  • a flow of information which is predominantly ‘pull’ not ‘push’
  • distributed rather than central ownership and control
  • correct balance between managerial trust and personal responsibility.

The converse of these environmental factors has traditionally been a significant barrier to the facilitation of effective knowledge management. The fact that social media tools can break them down is key to their contribution to the knowledge management challenge.

A key barrier to the successful implementation of enterprise knowledge sharing and management has been a mix of ‘intangible’ factors which could be categorised under the headings of culture and behaviours. The enormity of the perceived task in transforming these factors favourably and the lack of enterprise-wide ownership of that task has paralysed knowledge management practitioners for many years.

The advent of social media tools and their ability to facilitate a seismic cultural shift in the relationship between individuals within an organisation, and with the organisation itself, is a huge opportunity to dismantle those barriers and move a significant step towards enterprise knowledge sharing and management.

The paper also included the diagram I published in this post.

I agree entirely with Luis Suarez that the focus of KM has been far too much on tools and process, but don’t think social media is the ‘death’ of KM … rather, it is the missing link that can address some of the tricky ‘intangibles’ to which KM has traditionally paid lip-service while busily delivering new KM tools and re-engineering processes.