Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The danger of maturity models in KM (and the alternative)

Four Generations in One Photo... Priceless!I know that KM Maturity models are popular as a way of self-measuring progress, but personally I think they are inappropriate and can lead you into a wrong understanding of KM, and that there are much better alternatives.

Let me explain why!

The idea behind a KM maturity model is that you see where you currently lie on a series of spectrums which describe different elements of KM. You may be level 1 for leadership, level 2 for technologies, level 3 for whatever-it-might-be. Then over time, as you go through your KM implementation, you expect to creep incrementally up the scale; as if you were "growing up" and maturing as a KM company.

The problem is, KM is a change process, and it's a step change in culture. You cannot increment your way to a step change. You help the early adopters of KM to make the culture change and to adopt KM. These attract the first followers, who attract the second followers, but each one has to fully make the change to a KM culture and working KM approach, before they create enough value to attract the others. They make the change, show the value, and others follow.

So you cannot use an incremental scale, or a maturity model, for a step change. The step change is Quantum, not continuous.

Let's think about step change. The prime example is the penguins on an ice floe. They make a step change from one culture (on the floe; safe but hungry) to another (in the water; riskier but lots of food). They don't inch down the floe all together - you couldn't have a model that goes "penguins on floe, penguns feet in water, penguins waist deep, penguins neck-deep, penguind swimming". Instead the measure is "0 penguins in water, 1 penguin in water, 2 penguins"............up to all "all penguins in water". They are either in the water or not. It's a step change.

Look at the culture change  below. You could not apply a maturity level to the crowd. There is no maturity progression "crowd sitting still, crowd tapping feet, crowd fidgeting, crowd standing up and swaying, crowd dancing".  Instead the progression is "leader, first follower, second follower, third, fourth+fifth etc etc". They are either dancing, or they aren't. It's a step change.

For a step-change, the measure is not an incremental climb up an incremental scale, but the percentage that made the leap.

That's why a maturity measure is inappropriate, here's why it's dangerous.

It's dangerous because it leads you to think that you change the whole company all the time. In fact the best approach is to lead elements of the company to make the step change one by one (department by department, or community by community, or project by project).

It's dangerous because it leads you to think level 3 is better than level 2. Take leadership as an example - if level 2 is "disinterested" and level 3 is "lukewarm", then level 3 is not an advance over level 2, as both are inadequate for success. KM cannot survive with lukewarm leadership. KM needs clear leadership support and expectation. You need to work your way through the stakeholders one by one, moving each leader to the commitment threshold.

It's dangerous because it neglects the tipping point. Penguins diving off an ice floe, and dancers at a festival, reach a tipping point when the numbers are right, and the rest suddenly join in. An incremental maturity model does not predict this. You need to expect it, and plan for it, and resource for it. Demands on your services as KM coach and support may increase by a factor of 10 within a few days.

So what is better that a maturity model?

What is better, is a change model. You set the conditions for change, you define what the change will involve, then you implement Knowledge Management across the organisation; team by team, stakeholder by stakeholder, department by department or community by community. You map the change as the company transforms. Your metric is the percentage which have changed, not the degree of maturity of the change.


Ian Glendinning said...

The difference between what you are denigrating as a maturity model and promoting as a change model is simply the granularity of the changes - how many different independent (but connected) aspects and how many different possible steps.

I doubt anyone (with any wisdom) would reduce a maturity model view to a single continuous incremental % or anything crass like that. Each step having some significance has some definition. You are free to choose one definition for achieving KM and take a single step view as to whether that has been achieved or not, and the debate would shift to that definition. Personally, I think that would be too simplistic, and several significant steps or stages are more likely, and better than focussing on a single definition.

Glenn said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for an interesting and enjoyable read. I very much like the views you put forward.

Kind regards,

Dr. Dan Kirsch said...

Hi Nick,
I myself put forth the same argument from a slightly different angle about a month ago ( There are definitely similarities to be found in your suggestion that you should instead model the degree of change related to the organizational transformation and my suggestion that you model the degree of strategy implementation by modeling the percentage adopting the strategy. In fact, in key metrics that I always suggest for KM implementation they do include the very change metrics that you're also suggesting!



BrianSJ said...

Maturity Models Must Die!
Absolutely correct.

Nick Milton said...

Ian, I understand your point about granularity, but for me the difference is that you need different metrics for different steps.

I see three different stages, with different metrics

a) a completeness metric - to measure the completeness of the organisational "KM toolbox" (using toolbox in a very loose sense)
b) a change metric - to measure the degree of change
c) an application metric - to measure the application of KM after the change

So it's not so much an issue of granularity, more of applying the right metric at the right time. A simple maturity model masks this, and also gives the client the wrong message.

Stephen Dale said...

I'd agree that KM is better aligned to an organisational change model, but I don't agree that one should just dismiss maturity models out of hand. Developing a maturity model can be part of the activities involved in the change model. It's a useful discipline in identifying the pinch-points and barriers that one is likely to encounter as part of the change model. It's also useful in getting a consensus on where an individual, group, department or organisation is on their KM journey.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks Steve

I agree that there is a useful discipline in identifying pinch points and barriers, but that is not the same as maturity.

And when it comes to getting a consensus on where an individual, group, department or organisation is on their KM journey, then I would much rather present that journey as a step-change, than as a maturation.

Because it is a step change

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