Sunday 26 April 2009

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) = corporate failure?

There's a lot out there in the blogosphere at the moment about Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), and I have to admit, it's something that I find a little disturbing. You see, for me, Knowledge Management is not a personal thing; it's a communal thing. The whole culture change associated with KM lies in seeing knowledge not as personal property, to be held, hoarded or traded personally, but as community property to be sought, shared, reused and refreshed in community.

There's a saying that "all of us are smarter than any of us"* which bears this out - that the more people involved in the creation and reuse of knowledge, the more valuable that knowledge will be. Now community knowledge management, or even corporate knowledge management, is a difficult thing to do, and needs to be addressed as a company-wide change in culture, behaviour, process and accountability. It's easier to reorganise your personal information habits, than it is to change the culture of a company. It's easier to be personal, than it is to work in community. But for me, working KM as a personal issue just does not deliver the value. It may give the individual more efficient access to information and documents, but it does not give access to better knowledge. And that makes personal KM a red herring, a cul-de-sac, a distraction.

Now I know that many people develop PKM habits out of frustration. The information they need is not readily available through the company, or through the community, so they build their own stores. But as soon as the content of those personal knowledge stores starts to drift away from community knowledge, then all you are doing is introducing information and knowledge silos at the level of the individual. If the company is doing Knowledge Management properly, and making communal knowledge transparently available at the point of need, then you would not need PKM.

So for me, PKM is a sign of failure of corporate KM. If you get corporate KM correct, you don't need personal knowledge management, as all knowledge management will be collective, giving the individual access to far far more than their personal store.

Picture from Flickr creative commons, taken by ktheory

*Although there is a fine line between the wisdom of the crowds, and the madness of the mob. And just because an idea is popular, does not mean it's correct.


Steve Barth said...

"Just because an idea is popular, does not mean it's correct."

That would seem to be an argument for occasionally thinking for yourself, no?

Nick Milton said...

Well, sort of Steve. Yes and No. You know as well as I the tension between KM and innovation, or more extremely the tension between sticking to out of date dogma, and continuously reinventing the wheel. There is a key issue there, about how a community can continuously and objectively review its practices and look for the left-of-centre ideas that could challenge accepted wisdom and be the next step forward. However I would suggest that this is not just "thinking for yourself" but "thinking within the community". There's a great methodology that Shell Drilling use, called Drilling the Limit, where Drilling teams seek out all existing knowledge of drilling a well in a particular basin, and challenge themselves to step out beyond the performance benchmark. This is a very powerful process, all the more powerful by being worked collectively as a team, and being based on a full knowledge of what's been done in the past. That way the tensions are resolved.

Thanks for your critique of this article on your own blog, by the way. I have added some comments.

Anonymous said...

Milton may be partly right. You are talking about community approach, but I think the skill for building social network and trust is part of PKM. If this is the case, the best method is to invest in people through PKM.

Nick Milton said...

Anonymous, don't confuse social networks with communities of practice. Sure the skill for building personal networks lies with the person, but the skill for building communities of practice lies with the organisation, and must be nurtured by the organisation.

If it is left to the individual to build the knowledge sharing networks, then this is, as I said, a failure of corporate KM.

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