Monday, 5 July 2010


The failure to embed KM


Stephen Denning has published an interesting and thought provoking post, entitled "Why do great KM programs fail" where he concludes that

"even when an oasis of excellence and innovation is established within an organization being run on traditional management lines, the experience doesn’t take root and replicate throughout the organization because the setting isn’t congenial. The fundamental assumptions, attitudes and values are at odds with those of traditional management".


(my emphasis)

Stephen is absolutely right - KM is a major culture change, and culture change is very difficult to do. Organisations will reject anything that is countercultural - anything that is "at odds with traditional management". So yes, great KM programs often fail when they are not treated as culture change programs, or not given the required time to make the change. I was part of the BP KM team that he refers to - wound down prematurely as a result of the Amoco merger - and I have seen how long it has taken BP to come back into the KM game. I have seen similar premature wind-downs in De Beers, the BBC and many others.

However I have also seen sustained successes in KM, in Shell, Mars, Conoco Phillips, Buckman Labs, Fluor Daniel, and many more, not to mention the entire military sector. So KM can succeed, even though its difficult. The culture change can happen, the experience can take root and replicate. So KM doesn fail just because its difficult or countercultural, it fails because it has not been implemented with due recognition of it's difficult countercultural nature.

I would like to dig down one more level, and ask why some KM programs succeed where others fail. What do they do differently?

Stephen Denning himself gives us a clue in his article when he says "I watched it happen to a certain extent after I left the World Bank", which I will pursue along with the "take root" theme.

Lots of KM programs do not take root, because they have never been embedded in normal business. They are delivered by a strong team and a charismatic leader (such as Stephen himself, or Kent Greenes in BP, or Ian Corbett in De Beers) but delivered as something separate - not fully rooted in the work structure and management framework of the company. They are like a tree in a pot - well tended, well watered, but separate - and when the tender care is removed, the organisation tips back. KM needs to be like a tree in a forest - rooted in the fabric of the business.

So what does that mean, to be rooted in the fabric of the business? To answer that question, we look at change management programs that have succeeded, such as safety management. Safety is part of the normal business process, it is listed together with other project deliverables, its a target for management, it is reported in the annual report. It affects salaries and promotions; if you are habitually unsafe, you won't get far. Safety is fully embedded.

If an organisation wants Knowledge Management to be fully embedded, then KM needs to become part of the normal business process, it needs to be listed together with other project deliverables, it needs to be defined as part of the "minimum conditions of satisfaction" for management. It has to affect salaries and promotions; if you habitually don't learn, you have to see your career prospects suffer.

BP had not got this far in 1999, so when the strong team left, the pot plant withered. Now BP is embedding it - it's planting out the sapling of KM as a component part of the project management forest.

So my advice to the knowledge manager would be as follows

Once you have demonstrated some value from KM, don't rest on your laurels. You need to go to senior management, show them what you've delivered, sell them on the benefits, and work with them to embed Knowledge Management deep into the normal fabric of the organisation. Get those roots into the soil. Change the project requirements, to include KM. Change the minimum conditions of satisfaction for project delivery, to include effective lessons identification. Change the rules for project sanction, so a project gets no money if it hasn't done any learning. Change the job descriptions for the company experts, so that they are held acountable for stewardship of the company knowledge. Change the reporting requirements, the HR appraisal mechanism, change the incentive scheme to reward collaboration and discourage competition. Change the rules on timewriting. Notice the use of the word "change" there? Every such change is another KM root going down.

You, as KM leader, need to be able to let go of your KM sapling that you have been nurturing for so long, and watch it become subsumed and incorporated into the forest, and the senior managers have to help you plant it. That is it's only chance of survival.

4 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more, Nick, and I'd like to add a component I think may strengthen the safety analogy. In my experience at a very successful aerospace company, safety was shown to be important not only as a corporate initiative, but also as a personal one - directly related to quality of life . . . at home. Once people started seeing the value of "living" safely (not merely at work, but in everything they did) it became firmly embedded in the overall culture of the enterprise.

    Similarly, I think it might be useful to show how valuable KM is in every aspect of our lives. Stephen has made this clear, as has David Snowden, in his writings about story and the pivotal role it has played in our cultural evolution. We've often used the notes on the refrigerator concept of KM as a home-based application. Perhaps we need to think more about how to relate KM to everything we all do, as well as embedding it in our concept of how we need to work successfully.

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  2. Thanks Rick - I must admit I hadn't thought of the spillover of KM from work to home, in the same way that safety management spilled over.

    In some ways, in the west, our education system mitigates against KM. We see using other people's work as "cheating". In our exams, we have to come up with the answers ourselves. Knowledge is seen as a personal thing. Then we get to work, and the KM people say "No, knowledge is communal, its OK to use other people's answers".

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  3. Nick, I also agree strongly. We get the most traction by mapping KM behaviors to business expectations and results. That what we remain focused on even after 6 years of working this hard at ConocoPhillips. I also saw you posted a comment to Nancy Dixon's latest blog. She talked about Joint Sensemaking, Cognitive Diversity, and Organizational Transparency. Those get at some of the key behaviors that help capture and retain critical knowledge. And they are also key signs that embedding is happening. Dan

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  4. Thanks Dan

    You are one of the examples I always give of KM success!

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