Wednesday 6 April 2011

Horses for KM courses

horse of course
It is tempting to think that there are reliable knowledge management interventions which will form the cornerstone of any KM implementation.

"All companies need communities of practice" we might think. Or, "knowledge management relies on portals, and creation of a documented knowledge base". Or perhaps we think "Any company implementing knowledge management needs to introduce a culture of innovation".

Such certainties are tempting, but wrong.

Communities of practice may be fine where knowledge is dispersed around the organisation, in multiple silos, and where the disparate views of knowledge need to be brought together. But there are many cases where communities of practice are not the answer; when knowledge is held in one department in one location, or when knowledge is well defined and well documented, or when there is no knowledge in the organisation, and when the knowledge needs to be created or imported.

Portals and documented knowledge bases may be very valuable when knowledge is well-defined, and standard practices and procedures can be documented. However when knowledge is rapidly evolving, or where knowledge is new, then there is no value in writing it down in a centralised knowledge base, as it will be out of date before the ink is dry (see here for a historical example).

A culture of innovation is a great thing to have in any rapidly evolving industry, where new products and new approaches are the key to competitive success. Where success involves the effective and reliable operation of an established operation, innovation is less valuable (who wants a nuclear engineer to be innovative, rather than to follow orders? Who wants the pilot of their aircraft to be innovative in the way they fly the plane?) And there may be many cases where innovation is a less successful strategy than copying, or than standardising.

So don't be tempted to think that there are universal solutions in KM. There are horses for courses.

Define your course - define your business problem - and you can pick your horse.


gerald said...

Hi, Nick,

a lot to say, and agree, but I did already:

Great to see insights confirmed.


Peter said...

Ref "... or when knowledge is new then there is no value in writing it down in a centralised knowledge base... "

Not sure why there would not be any value in storing knowledge in a knowledge base..

Nick Milton said...

When knowledge is evolving more rapidly that the turnover time of the knowledge base, then the knowledge base will always be out of date, and it makes more sense to keep the knowledge tacit.

For example, a team conducting daily or half-daily after action reviews in a rapidly changing context. What's the point of documenting them in a knowledge base? Or at least, not until much later, when you can look back with a bit of an overview.

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