It is a commonly stated observation that 80% of knowledge management programs fail.
I don’t know whether this is a true observation, but it is commonly stated. Whether it is true or not probably all depends on what you mean by “knowledge management program” and what you mean by “fail”. However certainly there has been a large number of failures, as well as a (probably smaller) number of successes. As a consultant with 17 years experience in the field I have been involved in both successes and failures, so here’s my observations on some of the most common reasons for failure.
1. KM is not introduced as a change program
KM is a program of organisational change. It’s not about buying and rolling out technology, it’s not about giving people new toys, and it’s not about adding another task into the project framework – it’s about changing the way people think. It’s about changing personal and organisational priorities, and it’s about changing the way people think about knowledge. As I say in this post, it is a profound shift from the individual to the collective
• From “I know” to “We know”
• From “Knowledge is mine” to “Knowledge is ours”
• From “Knowledge is owned” to “Knowledge is shared”
• From “Knowledge is personal property” to “Knowledge is collective/community property”
• From “Knowledge is personal advantage” to “Knowledge is company advantage”
• From “Knowledge is personal” to “Knowledge is inter-personal”
• From “I defend what I know” to “I am open to better knowledge”
• From “not invented here (i.e. by me)” to “invented in my community”
• From “New knowledge competes with my personal knowledge” to “new knowledge improves my personal knowledge”
• From "other people's knowledge is a threat to me" to "our shared knowledge helps me"
• From “Admitting I don’t know is weakness” to “Admitting I don’t know is the first step to learning”
So KM needs to be introduced as an organisational change program, with high level sponsorship, with a communication strategy, with a desired end-state, and with step-wise implementation rather than “everyone change at once”. Change follows the S-curve, change needs to reach a tipping point, and hearts and minds need to be changed one at a time. Organisational change is a well-established field, and KM needs to learn from this field.
2. The KM team does not have the right people to deliver change
If KM is a program of organisational change, then the KM team need to be change agents and change leaders. The team leader, first and foremost, needs to be a change agent, a visionary leader, capable of working at the highest levels in the organisation as well as the lowest. They need to be an insider; this is a role that cannot be outsourced, as they need to "speak the language", know the politics, and have the credibility. They need to know enough about KM to translate it into business and customer terminology, but able to back it up with sound KM theory. They need to be comfortable in the board room as well as on the factory floor, and in both locations they need to inspire, and they need a team that can inspire as well.
All too often, the KM teams we come across in organisations are not like this at all. They are the wrong people. They are back-room boys and girls, more at home managing databases than inspiring change. They prefer working with computers to working with people. They do not inspire, and they are not visionary. They are uncomfortable in the board room.
Finding the right people is not easy, but changing the culture of an organisation is not easy either. With the wrong people on the team, you don't get the right result, even with the best consultants in the world to support you.
3. The KM team preach only to the choir.
The KM team are enthusiasts. They see the value in KM, they “catch the vision”, and they assume everyone else will catch the vision. As they go out into the organisation they begin to meet other enthusiasts, they will get a lot of Buzz, they will find some exciting projects, but unless they move beyond the enthusiasts they are just preaching to the choir. The KM fans will create a KM bubble, but if you don’t move beyond the enthusiasts, you won't penetrate the rest of the organisation. Experience shows that maybe 20% of people are enthusiasts, maybe 60% don’t care about KM one way or another (they will do it if their job requires it, but it’s not a big deal either way), and 20% hate the idea, and find it threatening. Very soon you have to leave the 20% of enthusiasts (even though it’s much more fun to work with them), and start the hard work of working with the other 80%; the tough nuts, the cynics and the don’t-cares.
And that’s where your change-agency skills will come in. Without them, and without preaching beyond the choir, you won’t get anywhere near your tipping point. You will get stuck with a happy choir, and a totally disinterested congregation.
4. Only parts of the KM solution are implemented
There are many elements to KM. There is connect, and collect. There is push, and pull. There is people (roles and accountabilities), processes, technologies and governance.
All too often, KM implementations take only one element, and assume that will work in isolation. A common assumption is that knowledge has to be captured and published, so people go down a route of collect and no connect, push and no pull, and a focus on technology without process, accountability and governance. Another common assumption is that all you have to do is “let people talk” and knowledge will share itself. So people go down a route of connect, people, and technology, And of course knowledge doesn’t “share itself”.
Taking a small element of KM and assuming it will work in isolation is like taking one ingredient and assuming it will create the whole recipe, or like taking one small element of a central heating system and assuming it will heat the house.
One common reason why we get invited into organisations is because they have part-implemented KM, and it got them nowhere. “We had a KM program last year, we bought a new search engine, but people aren’t using it”. “We introduced SharePoint and set up 40 communities of practice, but they are all inactive”. “We put in place a lessons learned process, but we are just learning the same lessons over and over”. They introduced a tool or a process or a technology, when what they needed was a system.
5. KM is never embedded into the business
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 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.
The goal is to embed a self-sustaining approach to KM in all elements of the business, with clear governance and good support, and clear evidence of sustainable culture change and sustainable business value. Don’t stop your implementation until you have got to this point. And even then, plan for a handover period, until embedded operational KM is up and running. Stopping a KM program before this point is a common reason for failure. And given that it may take years to reach this point, you need to ensure that your high level sponsor (see point 6) is “in it for the long run”.
6. There is no effective high-level sponsorship
In order to embed KM in the business, then changes to the business need to be made. You may have to change the incentives policy, perhaps removing the "factory of the year" award that drives so much internal competition. You may need to change the accountabilities of the Heads of Function, to include accountability for the maintenance of certain knowledge areas (that accountability usually being devolved to subject matter experts and communities of practice). You may have to introduce high level groups of responding to the output of knowledge capture sessions, whenever these uncover organisational weaknesses that need to be addressed, or organisation improvements that can be made. You may need to introduce a new technology across the entire organisation. For all of these, you need support at the highest level, so you need a sponsor with the ear of the CEO.
In addition, you need the heads of function onside, so you also need a high level steering team, including the CIO, the head of HR, the head of projects, the head of operations etc. These guys need to steer the KM project, and in return for that ability to steer, need to support the result.
Now not every KM implementation starts at a high enough level to have a C-grade sponsor. Sometimes KM starts in one division, or one country, or one function; however for KM to be applied across the whole company, or for the company-wide blockers to be removed, then the scale of KM implementation needs to be escalated, To do this, you will need to use the results of your divisional or national or functional KM program to make a case to senior management. You need to be able to say to them "Here is what KM can deliver. we have proved this at national, divisional or functional level. We can make these same improvements, and deliver the same scale of improvements across the entire business. However we need active sponsorship from you". You make a deal with senior management. In return for their support, you promise real business benefits (see point 7). Of course you have to deliver against these promises, but without senior support, there is no way you can deliver.
7. KM is not introduced with a business focus.
I see this one all the time, and it's a crucial point. KM should not be introduced for its own sake; it should be introduced because it solves business problems. The primary value of knowledge is helping people make better decisions, and so perform work better, faster and/or cheaper. You won't sell KM to anyone, let alone the doubters, the cynics or the high-level sponsors, by assuming that KM has self-evident benefit. You won't get anywhere by saying "we need to improve knowledge sharing", unless you can clearly demonstrate how better knowledge sharing will help the business. If you want support of a high level sponsor, you need to show how KM will help solve the issues that worry that sponsor. And if you aren't clear yourself, then sometimes the sponsor can help you clarify.
One of our clients took a KM strategy to the executive team of their organisation, It was a good strategy, but a little short on focus. Luckily rather than kicking it out, they said "yes, you can go ahead with KM, so long as you focus it entirely on the growth agenda. If it can help us grow, then go ahead". That's what they did, and now, many years later, then have a wealth of stories showing massive growth and many hundreds of millions of dollars value created, through the help of KM. It worked for them, and it would work even better for you if you think through the business priorities and the business benefit right at the start, before you even go to the sponsors in the first place. You need to know how KM will support the business strategy, you need to know where the value will come from, and you need to know, in general terms, the size of the prize.
Getting it right.
So if these are the 7 common reasons for failure, then the secrets of success are as follows
- Plan KM implementation as an organisational change program
- Recruit an excellent in-house change agent to run the program, supported by a powerful team
- Map out your stakeholders and your audience segments, and ensure you address all of them
- Implement KM as a holistic system, containing all necessary elements
- Don’t stop KM implementation until KM is fully embedded into company processes, accountabilities and governance.
- Make sure you have sponsorship at a high enough level that you can make and embed the required organisational change, and that you have a steering committee to ensure support for this
- Make sure your KM implementation is focused on solving real, pressing business issues.