Monday, 3 August 2020

KM - who is in the driving seat?

A knowledge management strategy is not set in stone. It is not a fixed, immutable 5-year roadmap - it needs to change as the business landscape change. But who should steer these changes? Who is in the driving seat?

A fashionable man behind a steering wheel
Image by Ivan Radic on Flickr

Does the KM team drive the strategy? Surely not - that would be a case of the horse leading the cart. Steerage needs to come from the business, not from KM.

Is is the KM sponsor? Potentially yes, but the sponsor is usually a single person with a single view point.

In order to get a representative steer from across the business, the best solution is to set up a steering team for your KM implementation.  This is a team of diverse senior leaders from within the main business units and functions, who help direct and drive the KM implementation effort by providing guidance, advice and challenge.

A successful steering team should powerful in terms of composition (senior managers with the titles, expertise, reputations, relationships, leadership skills and access to support and resources), their mutual level of trust, and their shared objectives. KM will usually need such a team to drive the change and steer the program, particularly in large and complex organizations.

The steering team will also ensure that the business is fully represented in the planning and decision making within the KM implementation. Committee members should represent the main functions (IT, HR, Quality etc) and the main lines of business (Marketing, Sales, Production, etc) in order to represent all the primary stakeholders. For example, in one Oil Company KM project the steering team consisted of:


  • MD - Planning
  • DMD - Marketing Operations
  • Deputy Chairman & DMD – Planning & Gas
  • Deputy Chairman & DMD – Refinery
  • Vice President & Chief Operating Officer
  • DMD – Joint Operations
  • Manager – Information Technology


The steering team is not a decision making board, but an advisory board to the sponsor and so to the KM leader. They give decision making authority in the sense that decisions will be well informed, relevant to the business, and likely to garner support.

The steering team members do not have to be KM converts. In fact, it is probably useful if some of them have some level of scepticism; to add a level of real business challenge to the program, and to ensure that objections are met and resolved early on.

 The steering team can also act as ambassadors for the KM program in their own part of the business. The manager of IT, for example, can ensure that the needs of the KM program are honoured by the IT department, and the Chief Operating Officer can help identify and facilitate KM pilots in the operational departments.

The steering team should meet on a regular basis; for example quarterly. It should be chaired by the KM sponsor, in order to support the sponsor’s review of the progress and performance of the KM program, and to advise on next steps.

Through the use of such a mechanism, the KM program can use the wisdom of the business to navigate KM through any strategic changes, and ensure it delivers maximum value for the business. 

Friday, 31 July 2020

KM is not an oxymoron

"Knowledge Management" is not an oxymoron, the term is merely being read the wrong way round.


One primary argument against the term "Knowledge Management" is that knowledge cannot be managed. Knowledge is an intangible, is personal and context specific, and is not an object in it’s own right, so how can it be managed?  Therefore the term is an Oxymoron.

However the management of intangibles is common practice in the business world. Talent management, Quality Management, Customer Relationship management, Brand management, Reputation management, Environmental management; all are established disciplines which make up part of good management practice in many businesses, and are concerned with managing intangibles.

Take Safety Management. Safety is personal and context specific, and is not an object in it’s own right, and yet nobody seems to object to the term "Safety Management". Nobody calls it an oxymoron. Safety management is not about the collection and movement of items of safety, but its about attitudes and behaviours. It's about how you manage, when you want to improve safety. Its Safety-based management.

Why is Knowledge Management different? Knowledge management is not about the collection and movement of tangible particles of knowledge - herding knowledge as if it were sheep -  but it is about attitudes and behaviours.

Knowledge Management does not mean “the Management of Knowledge”, it means “Knowledge-based Management", or "Management with attention to Knowledge".

The management of any intangible - Safety, Risk, Quality, Knowledge - requires putting in place a Management Framework where decisions are made, and actions are taken, in full cognisance of the importance and value of that intangible. Knowledge management requires means putting in place a Knowledge Management Framework where expectations are set, roles are assigned, processes and tools are available, actions are taken and behaviours are developed and sustained, to maximise the value of the know-how of the organisation.

Knowledge needs Management just as much as Management needs Knowledge. The term is not an oxymoron.

(For those of you who prefer the term "Knowledge Sharing", this is part of knowledge management, but you also need knowledge seeking, knowledge creation, knowledge synthesis and knowledge re-use. Sharing on its own is not enough).

Thursday, 30 July 2020

3 types of Tacit Knowledge

In an interesting New Scientist article, Harry Collins (author of "Tacit and Explicit knowledge") describes three types of Tacit Knowledge. 


Image from wikimedia commons
We know about the concept of tacit knowledge, which originally was described as knowledge which cannot be expresses (although often nowadays people use the term for knowledge which has not been documents. Collins describes it as "knowledge that is not and sometimes cannot be made explicit".

Tacit knowledge is "unspoken knowledge" and it remains unspoken for one of three reasons.

Collins describes Somatic Tacit Knowledge, which is the knowledge stored in the muscles, nerve pathways and synaptic connections. This is theoretically describable - "in principle, if not in practice, science could describe all of this. We still wouldn't be able to use it to guide our actions, because we aren't built for that". In other words, you can read a book that gives you the basic tango steps, but you can't learn tango from a book.

 You can express the way to balance a bicycle as follows - "In order to compensate for a given angle of imbalance α we must take a curve on the side of the imbalance, of which the radius (r) should be proportionate to the square of the velocity (v) over the imbalance r~v2/α." - but the only practical way to learn this is to feel it (and to fall off a few times as well).  The only way to transfer somatic tacit knowledge to someone is through long term coaching, demonstration, observation and feedback.

He describes Relational Tacit Knowledge, which is about social interaction and how this keeps some knowledge unspoken. Basically its the things you could explain but don't, for one reason or another. It includes secrets, the things you don't know that you know, and the things you can't explain because you don't know what the other party needs to know.  This knowledge remains tacit for social reasons, and the work of the knowledge manager is to go through the social barriers and retrieve this knowledge through questioning processes - for example in Knowledge Interviews.

Finally, there is collective tacit knowledge. This is about the way WE work. Its about knowledge held socially and collectively. He gives the example of riding a bike. The mechanics of riding a bike are all about somatic tacit knowledge, but the knowledge of riding a bike in London traffic are collective and tacit; you need to understand the unspoken social conventions, otherwise the taxis and buses will get you.  It is the collective tacit knowledge that the interviewer seeks for in team knowledge processes such as After Action Review and Retrospects, and the facilitator seeks to exchange in Peer Assists and Knowledge Exchange meetings.

Tacit knowledge is not always tacit because it CANNOT be made explicit. Some of the knowledge from some of the three types may be shared and documented, some may not.


The role of the knowledge manager is to ensure the right approaches are applied to the right knowledge.



Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The essential point of being a knowledge worker

A blog post appeared in the Huffington Post a few years ago entitled "you are more than a knowledge worker", which, in my view, completely missed the essential point of knowledge work. 


The basic premise on which the blog post is constructed was that being a knowledge worker means "your worth at work is directly related to how much you [personally] know".  The author then went on to say that your personal knowledge alone is not enough, you need other things, such as Experience, Expertise, Eccentricity and Educability.

However the worth of a knowledge worker is NOT directly related to how much you personally know.  That is not the essential point of being a knowledge worker.

The knowledge worker differs from the manual worker in that their work involves the application of knowledge rather than the application of muscles, but that doesn't mean that the knowledge has to be held by the individual worker.

The knowledge worker *applies knowledge* rather than *holds knowledge in their head*.

Much as automation massively increased the productivity of the manual worker by giving them power way beyond their personal strength and dexterity, and by allowing them to share their strength and skill with that of others, so Knowledge Management massively increases the productivity of the knowledge worker by providing knowledge as a shared asset, something every worker can draw on and contribute to.   Knowledge is the knowledge worker's raw material, but that knowledge should be the knowledge of the whole company, not of the individual.

The skills of a knowledge worker include the skills of sharing and learning, as the blog author alludes to in the "educability" section. This is not an additional element to knowledge work - it is a core skill for someone who works with knowledge. It is the "learner" element of the knower-learner spectrum, and the blog author is assuming that a knowledge worker must be a "knower".

A great knowledge worker is a person who seeks and finds knowledge to apply at work, and then shares their own knowledge and experience with others. A good knowledge company is one that supports their knowledge workers by making knowledge a shared, accessible, re-usable and continuously improved resource, through setting up a KM Framework.

For a knowledge worker in a good knowledge company, your worth at work is directly related to how much you can learn, how much you can apply what you have learned, and how much you can share new knowledge with others. Not how much you personally know.


Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Internal competition - the KM-killer

If Knowledge Management is like gardening and the knowledge manager is like a gardener (see here to understand the metaphor), then Internal competition is like a late frost that kills all your green shoots. 


There is no point in planting the seeds of Knowledge Management and protecting the first shoots of knowledge sharing, if the company incentive scheme has large elements of internal competition, which will just freeze your efforts dead.

Companies often encourage internal competition as an incentive to drive performance in a company. They might set up "salesman of the year" schemes, to encourage personal sales effort with big bonuses, or they might give awards and recognition to the factory that produces the best output.

But why would one sales executive share knowledge to help another, if that just meant that their bonus was more at risk? They wouldn't. They would hoard their knowledge for the competitive advantage it gives them. And the poor salesperson at the bottom of the pile - the one who needs to learn the most - finds nobody who will help them.

Why would one factory share knowledge with another, if they are in competition? They wouldn't. Or if they did, they would be very clever about it.

We worked with a company trying to introduce Best Practice sharing between a number of factories who competed for an annual “factory of the year” award. The company decided to make “best practice sharing” part of the award criteria, with each factory required to submit a quota of best practices. The wily factory staff waited until just before the award deadline, then issued all their best practices in one submission (most of them poor quality); early enough that they counted towards the award, but so late that none of their rival factories could benefit from reusing the knowledge. Internal competition therefore trumped knowledge sharing.

The knowledge manager needs to address this issue, and can do so in two ways, firstly by protecting the first shoots of KM behaviour against the Internal Competition frost, and secondly by making the case for eliminating internal competition.

The first approach - "protection" - involves ensuring that your early KM pilots and proof of concept exercises are not in areas where internal competition is an issue. Find a part of the business where the different business units can benefit from knowledge sharing, but where they are not in competition. If the factories compete on output volume, then perhaps they could collaborate on energy use, or on quality.  If the sales staff compete on sales volume, perhaps they could collaborate on customer retention.

The second approach comes once you have data from the pilots and proof of concept exercises which shows the value that KM can bring. Then you make a business case to senior management that there is more value in collaboration than in internal competition, and that all competitive efforts should be turned towards the competition, not towards other colleagues.

 Instead of incentivising one plant if it increases production, you incentivise all plants if all plants improve. Say you have 10 plants, which together produce 1 billion tonnes. Why not give ALL plant managers the target of reaching a collective total of 1.2 billion tonnes, with a handsome bonus for all of them if they collectively achieve it?  This is the "T-shaped Manager" approach used at BP, which was based on T-shaped incentives.

Why not give all the sales force the collective incentive of increasing sales by 10%? That would be a fantastic way of driving collaboration, because now it is in the interest of the strong performer to improve the results of the poor performer. The strong performers become mentors and coaches and guides.  Once company we worked with gave every salesperson in a team the same sales target, with a bonus for everyone if they all exceeded their targets. The good salespeople delivered their targets early, then spent time coaching and helping the poorer performers to increase the overall performance of the team.

Replace the KM-killing frosts of Internal Competition with the warmth of internal collaboration, and all will be well in your KM garden.

Friday, 24 July 2020

The 4 things you need to know at the start of KM implementation

If you are a new Knowledge Manager, implementing KM for the first time in an organisation, there are 4 things to learn about before you start, and some of that learning may be closer to home than you realise.

One of the tenets of Knowledge Management is that if you face a new piece of work, then you need to gain knowledge before you make a start. You make a KM plan, you identify your knowledge needs, you identify the sources of the knowledge, and you set out on your learning journey.

You "learn before doing", as this is the surest way to build on the successes of others, and to avoid their mistakes and pitfalls.

So what do you need to learn about?

For the knowledge manager, there are 4 main things you need to learn about:
  1. How knowledge management works, and the possible elements of the knowledge management framework in an organisation like yours;
  2. How your organisation works, and the role of knowledge within those workings;
  3. How knowledge management can be introduced to an organisation, including the elements of KM strategy and KM implementation;
  4. How Change Management works in your own organisation, and how a major change program should be run.
We see most Knowledge Managers focusing on number 1, and (to be honest) often getting very confused. KM is a complex field, with very many variants such as legal KM, practice-focused KM, product-focused KM, KM for customer service and R&D KM. There are also many variants that (in our experience) are suboptimal, such as KM only through social media push, or guerilla KM, or "KM as an IT system". The Knowledge Manager who Googles "knowledge management" will be overwhelmed by variety, and the risk is that they choose an answer that fits their prejudice, rather than an answer based on solid experience.

Most Knowledge Managers are internal appointments, and so take number 2 for granted. However if you are to make KM a success, you need to do your internal market research. You need a very good understanding of the internal stakeholders and their needs before you can start to build your plan.

Fewer Knowledge Managers focus on the third point. Implementing KM is a long term and risky business - many knowledge management programs fail and many knowledge managers lose their job. It is harder to find advice on KM implementation, as few organisations have implemented KM really successfully, and fewer people have been involved in more than one KM implementation. This is an area where it pays to find good experienced consultants to help you.

Even fewer learn about the 4th topic, which is strange because here the knowledge is close to home and accessible. Implementing KM is a change program, it is probably not the first change program your organisation has attempted, and there will be others in-house with valuable experience and knowledge to share. Find them, speak with them, and learn their lessons. Find out the secrets of their success and how they dealt with the pitfalls they encountered. Ask them "if you were starting a new program of change in this organisation, then based on your experience, how would you do it?"

You could, as an alternative approach, consider addressing these three areas in the reverse order.

  • Firstly, learn about change in your organisation, and the secrets of successful change.
  • Secondly, learn from experienced guides about the mechanics of KM implementation, in the context of your own change.
  • Thirdly do your market research.
  • Finally learn about the details of KM, and how it works in your own organisation. 

Contact us if you need any help with your pre-learning


Thursday, 23 July 2020

Free access to knowledge, or structured access to knowledge?

Here is another excellent article from Tom Davenport, one of the clearest writers on the topic of Knowledge Management, making the case for a structured "just-in-time" approach to the supply of knowledge. 

Tom starts his article as follows:
In the half-century since Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers,” their share of the workforce has steadily grown—and so has the range of technology tools aimed at boosting their productivity. Yet there’s little evidence that massive spending on personal computing, productivity software, knowledge-management systems, and much else has moved the needle. What’s more, a wide variety of recent research has begun suggesting that always-on, multitasking work environments are so distracting that they are sapping productivity.
He goes on to contrast two approaches to the provision of knowledge

  • A "free access" approach where the organization provides free access to a wide variety of tools and information resources, assuming that the individual employees will do the selecting, prioritising and filtering and find the knowledge they need to conduct their work. 
  • A "structured" approach where knowledge is delivered in the context of tasks and delivereables, providing just in time knowledge at the point of need. In this case the prioritising has been done before the knowledge reaches the knowledge worker. 
Long-term readers of this blog will recognise these options as the "knowledge firehose and the knowledge faucet", or will recognise the second as the lean knowledge supply chain. The first rapidly overwhelms the knowledge worker, the second efficiently provides the knowledge they need with no additional waste. 

However Davenport adds a nuance. He suggests that the free access approach may be valid among the autonomous knowledge workers with high levels of expertise, who can invest the time and energy needed to filter the firehose and draw out the selected nuggets which may make a subtle difference. 

The problem with providing free and unstructured knowledge to all knowledge workers is the associated productivity loss. Here are some of Davenport' statistics.

  • One survey revealed that over a quarter of a typical knowledge worker’s time is spent searching for information.
  • Another found that only 16 percent of the content within typical businesses is posted to locations where other workers can access it.
  • Average knowledge workers access their e-mail more than 50 times, use instant messaging 77 times, and visit more than 40 Web sites a day.
  • A UK study suggests that social-media use by knowledge workers costs British companies £6.5 billion a year in lost productivity.
Davenport contrasts this with the structured supply of knowledge using workflow technologies. Here productivity is the major gain - by providing people with the knowledge they need without them even having to look for it, task-based productivity can rise by 50%. The downside of these systems is the lack of a personal touch - the lack of the social component. 

However there is always a combined approach. Through Connect and Collect we can provide a push-based supply chain of explicit knowledge to the knowledge workers, linked to their task workflow (or prompt them to pull structured knowledge from a structured knowledge base) and in parallel allow them to pull unstructured tacit knowledge from a community of practice.  A Knowledge Management Strategy can be used to determine the balance between these two approaches for different knowledge topics. 

 Davenport concludes his article as follows:

It’s time to think about how to make [the knowledge workers] more productive by imposing a bit more structure. This combination of technology and structure, along with a bit of managerial discretion in applying them to knowledge work, may well produce a revolution in the jobs that cost and matter the most to contemporary organizations

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