Wednesday 25 July 2012

Is KM T-shaped, L-shaped, or I-bar-shaped?

The landmark paper by Morten Hansen and Boiko von Oetinger described the T-shaped manager - a manager who works laterally across the organisation, as well as managing downwards. (If you haven't read the paper, read it now - it's very good)

But is Knowledge Management as a whole, T-shaped? Let's explore the shape of KM.

Is KM T-shaped? The Horizontal bar of the T represents "executives ... sharing knowledge freely across the organization (the horizontal part of the "T") while remaining fiercely committed to individual business unit performance (the vertical part)" (quoted from Hansen's paper). The vertical part of the T is the downward relation to the business unit - the traditional vertical relationship. The horizontal bar is new, and adds the value. However if the T shape is related only to managers - to executives - then we lose a lot of potential value that comes from staff at lower levels sharing and re-using knowledge. 

Is KM L-shaped? Or the sort of double-footed L we see in the diagram above. The would represent staff sharing knowledge freely across the organization (the horizontal part of the "L") while remaining fiercely committed to their objectives and accountabilities et by management (the vertical part). This would be the sort of grass-roots, bottom-up, "stealth" approach to KM we often see espoused - "roll out the tools, and people will naturally start to share". However if the staff are L-shaped and their managers are strictly vertical, then you have set up a conflict. Staff are engaged in Lateral activities which their managers (with their strictly vertical perspective) are not interested in.

Is KM I-bar shaped (that composite letter on the right in the diagram)? This is the ideal; this is where the executives share knowledge freely, and the staff share knowledge freely, and both levels are fully aligned. Hansen and von Oetinger's paper talked only about managers, and did not look at the communities of practice within the organisations they described.  This is a shame, as they would have seen a fully I-shaped organisation.

An interesting side issue is the issue of Incentives. Hansen and von Oetinger describe the T-shaped behaviours at BP, which were fully supported by T-shaped incentives for the executives. If we have an I-bar-shaped company, can we set up I-bar-shaped incentives, to drive the correct behaviour? In all too many cases, we see attempts to drive I-bar-shaped behaviour, while still applying strictly vertical incentives, related only to performance in your own business unit, and neglecting any contribution to performance elsewhere. 

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