Friday 26 March 2010

Do we set our KM sights too low?

Here is an interesting and challenging blog post from James Robertson in Sydney

He says

"In the world of KM literature, knowledge managers stride god-like through their organisations, radically transforming how staff and business units operate. They reshape firms into “knowledge-centric businesses”, overcome organisational silos, and prevent reinvention of the wheel.

This is, of course, crazy.

Not even the CEO can single-handedly transform an organisation. As mere mortals, knowledge managers are set up for failure with they measure their projects against these grand objectives.

At the end of the day, if a knowledge manager delivers more value in a year than their salary and (meagre) budget, they’re ahead. If they solve one small but important issue, they’re doing their job. To achieve this, they need to escape these immortal visions, and focus on the work that can be done by mortals".

My reply to James, on his blog, is as follows, and I share it here as I think it's a really important issue.

Quite frankly, I think many knowledge managers set the expectation for KM too low. This is largely a byproduct of the level at which knowledge management projects are frequently staffed, which again is often way too low. Not to mention the "meagre" budget that James mentions.

Knowledge Management, if it is to deliver culture change, needs to be staffed and funded and delivered at such a level where lasting change can be effected, and this is at a high level in the organisation, with the CEO as a champion, and with a decent budget. It is, as James says, "of course crazy" for his friend in London to effect organisational change. He may make some nice tweaks to an Intranet, but he won't introduce a Knowledge culture. But it is not crazy for a highly placed KM team to to effect organisational change.

We know organisational change is possible - we have seen many organisations introduce a Quality culture, a Safety culture, or a a Customer-centric culture. They do this though a high level initiative working at all levels. We introduce a Knowledge culture the same way, and KM can and should learn the lessons of successful change from all these other cultural change initiatives.

So what can you do, if you are at a low level in the organisation, and you are powerless to change organisational culture? What can you do with your "meagre" budget?

What you do is make an unassailable case for the value of KM (and for the risks of not doing KM) at a level which you can influence, and then you scale it up. You change the culture where you are, and measure the benefit. You extrapolate to quantify the scale of the total prize. You make the case for action to your manager, then to your managers manager, then to the senior management, and then to the CEO. You make the case so strongly, that there is no excuse not to act. You make the case for a budget to do the work that needs to be done - the comprehensive knowledge audit, the KM strategy and governance model, the knowledge sharing initiatives (the activities as mentioned by James as being beyond the influence of his knowledge manager friend) - you set up some larger scale trials, then if these are successful, you move into roll-out.

If there is a tension between our aspirations and our capabilities, then I would rather enhance the capability than lower the aspiration. We may "stand in the shadow of the immortal figures" (and having worked with many of them, they are as mortal as you and me), but immortality is there to be grasped, if we do not set our sights too low.

PS one added point - its not just the level of the KM project that's important; its also the characteristics of the initiative leader - see below

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