Thursday, 3 October 2013

Why hasn't knowledge management caught on? Wrong question!

There is a discussion going on at the moment on the Australian ACTKM bulletin board, on the topic "Regarding KM's (Perceived) Failure to "Catch On""

Neil Olonoff is seeking feedback on this issue, based on a request he has received from a government contact, who asks "KM makes sense any way you look it at, so why hasn't it caught on after all these years?"

An interesting question, but the wrong question.

From the point of the writer of the request, and probably from the point of view of most people in government or the public sector, KM has not caught on.

However there are other industries where KM has caught on like wildfire, and has delivered over a decade of sustained value.

The International oil business, for example, where KM is embedded, institutionalised, and part of the unconscious fabric of working. Or the legal sector, who's own document-focused brand of KM is well established. Or the consulting sector. Or the development sector. Aerospace. The military. etc etc.

So the question is not "Why hasn't KM caught on" but "Why hasn't KM caught on HERE".

I think there are several reasons why KM has not yet caught on in government circles, and many of these can be related to the presence or lack of the components of organisational learning culture.

  • KM catches on most easily where knowledge has the biggest and most immediate impact on performance. If you can see, and measure, the added value of knowledge (on cost, speed of delivery, bid win rate, whatever) then good KM, leading to an improvement of the delivery of knowledge to the decision makers, delivers immediate and visible value. In the public sector, performance is a very difficult concept to work with. What makes up "good performance" for a government department? How easy is that to measure, and how easy is it to tie back to knowledge?
  • Where I have worked with public sector institutions, one of the things that struck me most forcefully was the way messages were managed. There seemed to be a lot of reworking documents, to make sure they said things in the correct way. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it introduces barriers to empowerment, to transparency, and to other elements of the required organisational learning culture. 
  • There is a distinct lack of "no blame" in the public sector, this time due to external pressures. All over the world (or almost all over), there is a hungry press waiting to pounce on anything that looks like a mistake or a failure from a government body. This makes "learning from failure" a very risky affair. Indeed, the default approach to learning from failure is the dreaded "public enquiry", after which someone will be sacked, someone will retire in disgrace, and the true reasons for failure will remain unfixed.
So there are some real structural and cultural reasons why KM is not so easy in the public sector. In addition, where I have seen it, it tends to be focused on the tactical issues, and seldom on the strategic issues.

However, whether you sit in the public or private sector and are pondering "Why does KM seem to be dead? Why hasn't it caught on?", then you are asking the wrong question, because in other places KM has caught on and is alive and well.

You need to learn from where it works, and see what's different about your own context.

1 comment:

Robert Cosgrave said...

Another factor affecting KM in the public sector is Official Information Act requests. Civil servants of any level of experience tend to be slow to record information in discoverable forms. Critical things are often not written until they have been agreed by enough stakeholders to cover everyone, hence the careful wording of documents and memos. A mechanism to allow any member staff to quickly capture and share knowledge without multiple sign offs would be of concern to many public sector managers.

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