Thursday, 18 June 2009

Are you putting a man on the moon? Or just trying out a new mop?

Space shuttle liftoff from the
Kennedy Space Center: Merritt Island, Florida
Originally uploaded by
State Library and Archives of Florida
The story is told of how President John Kennedy once visited NASA. He came across a cleaner and asked him what his job was. The cleaner replied: ‘My job is to help to put a man on the moon.’

There is some discussion of whether this story is true or not, but what it illustrates is the cleaner's complete alignment with the aims of NASA, and the collective mission and strategy.

What if it had been the Knowledge Management lead that Kennedy had spoken to? What sort of answer would he have received?

I believe it is vital that KM efforts are linked to business outcome, and I am not the only on who believes this. I have a quote from a survey from the early 00s, that reads as follows

  • “Most successful knowledge management applications
    addressed a ‘life or death’ business situation
    addressed an existing
    business issue

    Successful cases answered two questions at the outset -
    What business objective am I trying to achieve?
    How can I apply existing

Similarly Tom Davenport and co-authors, in the paper "Building successful Knowledge Management projects", conclude that "Link to economic performance or industry value" is the number one success factor for successful KM. I was reminded of this yesterday, at a presentation from Conoco Phillips, where they showed some of the portal pages for their Operational Excellence Communities of Practice, and there on the front page was the community goal to deliver X number of additional barrels of oil production to the organisation, plus the number of barrels delivered to date. They knew their role - to deliver additional oil to the bottom line.

Conoco Phillips aren't the only ones - Mars directed KM at delivering growth in emerging markets, De Beers at Block Caving, BP at cutting the cost of constructing retail stations, Ford at continuously decreasing manufacturing costs. In each case, this was their "man on the moon" - their business imperative that KM was serving, their "life and death" business issue. KM was being directed at solving real issues, and therefore gained a seat at the strategy table, and delivered successful programs as a result (at least for a while).

However a lot of KM professionals don't seem to have made this link with business value and business imperatives in their KM strategy. If you ask them what they are doing, they say "We're rolling out SharePoint", or "I am trialling MediaWiki". This would be the equivalent of the NASA cleaner saying "I'm trying out a new mop head". It doesn't have the same impact somehow!

Addressing urgent business issues is even more important during a recession, when management are looking to cut costs. I heard yesterday of another KM program closed, and another KM leader looking for a job, as the company sought to cut back on expenditure. If you're not seen to be addressing the crucial business issues*, then you could be seen as optional, and times are too tight for optional expenditure.

So if you were asked "What's your KM focus this year" - what would you answer? Could you point to a crucial business issue* you were helping to solve through application of KM? Could you say "We're helping put a man on the moon?" Or are you just mopping the floor?

*By the way, "reducing travel costs through enabling online collaboration" is not a critical business issue, nor is "reducing the time to find information". Your company is not a travel agent nor an information finder, and neither of these issues will keep your CEO awake at night.


Tim Wright said...

Nick - you are absolutely right on all counts. The challenge is though that many organisation want to relegate KM to some kind of information management service (yes I know we have had this debate before) and simply do not see it as a strategic role. Consequently many people tasked with KM specifically are low own the management chain and find it very hard to get traction at a strategic level. Equally many organisations lack the strategic clarity to be able to specify and articulate such goals - another KM problem of course.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks Tim - I agree that many organisations fail to to see the full vision of KM, and to a large extent that is a failure of the KM industry, selling a limited vision.

If a KM team find themselves too low on the management chain to get traction, then they need to escalate. They need to demonstrate value (through addressing a real business problem at their level of influence), and use this demonstrable value as a lever to hold conversations higher up the chain.

Unfortunately many KM teams also have a limited vision of their own potential, and see themselves either as providers or tools or managers of information, and not as changers of culture. That's partly why I wanted to write this blog post - to share a different possibility.

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