Tuesday 31 August 2010

When not to bother with KM – the corollary to the business driver

There has been a very interesting conversation going on in Linked-in, started by Samraj. Samraj was asking about change management strategies where the leadership of the organisation has no wish to change.

It seems that Samraj is interested in introducing knowledge management to an organisation where senior management don’t see any need for it. The organisation is a niche player in a lucrative market, and seems to be making loads of money. According to Samraj, the senior and middle management want to continue as they are, and have no interest in change at the moment.

Putting to one side the issue of change management in such a situation, and putting to the other side the medium to longer term risk that Samraj recognises at the company (many of the key people who understand the business are due to retire shortly, and the company’s leading position may be at risk as their knowledge is lost), it left me with the question, are there cases where introducing Knowledge Management may be the wrong thing to do?

I have argued strongly in the past for Knowledge Management to be business-driven, and to be introduced as a solution to specific business needs; for Knowledge Management to be a strategic business support tool. But what if there is no business need? What if the inefficiencies of poor KM are a cost the company can well afford to bear? What if the company is working in a mode of “It works – let’s not mess with it”?

I would argue that in these cases, don’t bother with KM.

I know that this will be anathema to many of the evangelists, but my principle remains that Knowledge Management should never be introduced for its own sake, but to solve business problems.

Larry Prusak once told me “There is only one thing that gives you sustainable competitive advantage – what you know, how you use what you know, and how fast you can know something new. Unless you have an irregularity in the economy such as a monopoly, there is nothing else that is sustainable”.

Samraj’s company is in that “irregularity in the economy” zone, and knowledge management is not (at the moment) providing them with sustainable competitive advantage. The competitors cannot access the knowledge, knowledge easily and they may not be able to push in the resources to create this knowledge . So my primary advice to Samraj is – Don’t Bother with KM right now.

Don’t bother introducing Knowledge Management now, when the leadership see no need, and when the change involved in introducing KM could be a distraction; could “rock the boat”.

Instead, work with middle and senior management to understand the magnitude of the knowledge retention risk. Then if they accept the risk, then develop a strategy to address it, introducing the right tools, processes and roles at the right time to address the risk. Make KM a business-driven response to a strategic risk, rather than an unwanted skunk-works developed against a background of management apathy and resistance.

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