Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Management of Intangibles, including Knowledge

One of the arguments against the term "Knowledge Management" is that 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 "Knowledge Management" is said to be an oxymoron.

However the management of intangibles is common practice in the business world. Risk management, Safety 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. Why is Knowledge Management different? Why is Risk Management a valid term for example, while Knowledge Management is an oxymoron? Surely a risk like a hurricane or a terrorist attack is not something you can manage?

I think part of the problem is that we tend to look at the management term in the wrong way. Risk Management does not mean that risk is an object that can be managed -- many risks are completely unmanageable. Instead it means putting in place a Management Framework where decisions are made, and actions are taken, in full cognisance of the importance of risk. Similarly, Safety Management means putting in place a Management Framework where actions are taken, and behaviours put in place, so that the workplace becomes safer. Similarly Knowledge Management need not mean the management of knowledge. Instead, it means putting in place a Management Framework where expectations are set, actions are taken, and behaviours are put in place and sustained, to maximise the value of the know-how of the organisation.

[As an aside, I would argue that Knowledge Management has much to learn from Risk Management and Safety Management. The latter, in particular, has been a massive cultural change in the construction and engineering based industries, and if Knowledge Management is to make a similar cultural change, there are many lessons to be learned from safety.]

To date, in many organisations, Knowledge Management has not yet become a management discipline with the same level of rigour as the management of other aspects such as risk or safety. In many organisations, tools, behaviours and processes have been introduced, communities of practice set up, after action reviews introduced, and the value of Knowledge Management has been comprehensively demonstrated. People know Knowledge Management is a good thing, although there are often more urgent "good things" that take precedence. How then can the organisation take the next step towards KM becoming a true embedded discipline? If its value is proven, would the organisation not want to make sure that this value is fully delivered? Would the organisation not want to make sure that Knowledge Management is applied in a rigorous and systematic way? This is certainly the way that management thinking is going in the oil industry, both in the oil majors and some of the many service and contracting companies. Oil company management realise the value of knowledge, they realise how costly repeat mistakes can be, and they are moving towards putting structures are in place to ensure that the right knowledge is applied by the right people at the right time. They are not relying on chance, or on adhoc KM.

There are three elements to any Management Framework; you make sure people know what they are supposed to do, you make sure they have the tools to do the job, and you check that they are doing the job [rewarding them when they do, putting in place consequences if they don't]. These three elements are described below as Leadership focus and expectation, a holistic and complete system, and monitoring measuring and incentivising.

Leadership focus and expectation
How do leadership support Knowledge Management? Well, probably the same way they support Risk Management and Safety Management. They make it very clear what they expect, they make it very clear who is accountable, they define minimum conditions of satisfaction, and they provide areas of focus. Similarly in Knowledge Management.

Leadership need to set expectations and minimum conditions of satisfaction, especially in a project based organisation. Should every project hold Peer Assists? Should every project hold After Action Reviews, or Retrospects? Should every project have a Knowledge Management Plan? If Knowledge Management is to become common practice, then people need to know what they are supposed to do.

Leadership need to help set the areas of focus for Knowledge Management. What is the key knowledge of the organisation? What does the organisation need to learn? What are the new competencies, competitive competencies or core competencies that need to be built and-or protected? For example, leadership of one manufacturing and marketing company has recognized that Third World distribution is a key area of focus, and has set up global practice groups to build and disseminate the knowledge of how to distribute in the Third World.

Leadership also need to set accountabilities. Where does accountability lie for maintaining the knowledge level of the organisation in key areas? Does it lie with the functions? The communities? The experts? The projects? The line managers? Front line supervisors? Who? If it's nobody's accountability, then it won't get done. For example, the leadership of one company has defined their areas of strategic knowledge, and has made a specific network accountable for each area.

A holistic and complete system
Once people are clear what they need to do, and what areas they need to focus on, then they need the tools to do the job. Here we are talking about a complete and holistic Knowledge Management system, not just technology. We are talking about a complete set of processes for discussing and exchanging knowledge, for identifying what has been learned, for questioning, for dialogue; Peer Assists, After Action Reviews, Retrospects, Knowledge Exchanges, Roundtables, Business-Driven Action Learning -- whatever is relevant and applicable. We are talking about a complete set of roles and accountabilities for knowledge stewardship and knowledge exchange facilitation; Community Facilitators, Subject Matter Experts, Knowledge Area Owners, Retrospect Facilitators -- what ever is relevant and applicable. We are also talking about any necessary supporting technology such as Intranets, Community Discussion Fora, Collaboration Tools, Search Engines -- what ever is relevant and applicable. The Knowledge Management system can be as simple or as sophisticated as the needs of the business demands, but it needs to be complete, it needs to address People Process and Technology, and it needs to address Connect and Collect.

Monitoring, measuring and incentivising
If the company is to set expectations in any area of behaviours, then those expectations need to be monitored and need to be incentivised. One common reason for the lack of true embedding of Knowledge Management activities and behaviours, is the lack of consequence if these are not done. Anything that is optional in today’s busy world tends not to get done. Knowledge Management remains optional. Imagine if financial management remained optional. Imagine if personnel management remained optional. If Knowledge Management is to be rigorous and sustained, it needs to be monitored and measured. This is for two reasons. Firstly, delivery against expectations needs to be incentivised. This may take the form of placing Knowledge Management expectations into performance appraisal, or it may be a case to taking action against the knowledge-hoarders. Secondly, you need to be monitoring the health and effectiveness of the Knowledge Management system itself, and making any adjustments to ensure that it works easily and effectively. Obviously this requires something to be in place to do the monitoring and measuring, whether this is a small central KM team, or whether it's part of the audit function.

Together, these elements of Expectation, System and Monitoring work for Safety Management and for Risk Management, and in the few places where they have been applied for KM, work there as well.

Intangibles Management is common established practice in business. Knowledge is an intangible, and Knowledge Management can learn a lot from these established practices.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, uploaded by tlindenbaum

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