Saturday, 11 July 2009

Knowledge Management - one among equals, or unique?

This post from Art Schlussel reminded me of a discussion I had in Stockholm late last year, which was, I think, indicative of two opposing views of KM. Art's blog post brought this back to mind.

My view, and I think Art's view, is that Knowledge Management is one management discipline among many. It represents a way of managing work, paying due attention to the value and effect of an intangible (namely, knowledge). And it's not the only management discipline which deals with intangibles. Risk management, Quality management, customer relationship management, brand management, reputation management, security management, safety management - all deal with intangibles. For me, the closest of these to KM is risk management. Knowledge and risk are allied - you reduce risk through application of knowledge. Knowledge of risks and how to handle them is some of the most valuable operational knowledge.

So, in Stockholm, I presented this view of KM as one of many management disciplines. I was speaking in the context of project management, and I suggested that KM could be added to the list of management subcomponents of project management, and therefore added the accountability of the project manager. But after the talk, a young man came to see me and argued very strongly that I was completely wrong, and that knowledge management is unique, and cannot be bundled with other disciplines, as it is quite unlike anything else.

I suppose in a way he is correct - there are some unique elements in KM - but in another way I would rather not treat KM as a standalone. The great value of treating KM as "one among equals" - as another component of good management discipline along wirh risk management, safety management and the others - is that you can then place it within the same governance framework as you do the other disciplines. You can position it in the same structures and expectations. You can review it using the same review processes (the stage reviews of the project management framework, for example). In other words, you can embed it easily within "normal work".

Maybe that's a pragmatists approach rather than a theorists or idealists approach, but I would rather go for something that works any day! As Art argues in his blog, sometimes KM has to get over it's inflated view of itself. He says

There is no doubt in my mind that the impact of KM on an organization can be
huge. Vast amounts of time, money, and resources can be saved. New ideas and
innovations can propel an organization faster then ever before. Lives can be
saved by sharing critical knowledge to the right group at the right time. We
know this, but this can only happen if an organization can see KM for what it
really is. If they can see the value of KM, not the hype or the spin, and if KM
practices are embedded in their way of doing business, not layered on top of
doing business.

I agree completely, and would stand by my contention that KM is one discipline among many, and needs to find its place "embedded in the way of doing business". But I would be interested in your opinions!


Lisa Belsito Austin said...

I would suggest that it's not an "either/or" situation, but a "both/and more" situation. If we focus on what KM does vs. what it is, I think we can have better conversations with clients. And, the conversation runs through a spectrum of topics depending on who the client is; it could be a conversation about changing behavior, changing a company, changing leadership, changing processes, changing technology, etc....

Nick Milton said...

Hi Lisa

i completely agree with you when it comes to communicating with clients. We have to keep focus on "what KM does" and its unique role in delivering continuous performance improvement.

Where it becomes important to agree "what KM is" is late in the implementation stage, when the value is proven, and we are looking to institutionalise the change and embed KM in the structures, systems and accountabilities of the organisation. That's when we need to decide if it is a support function, or a component discipline of project management, or a component of Quality, or whatever.

We have proven the "Why" and we need to decide on Where will it sit, Who is accountable, How do we performance manage it, When do we review it, and so on. And to do that, I think we have to have some sort of agreement on What it is.

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