Thursday 19 December 2013

Why do KMers so often fail to learn from the past?

Why is it that so many KM implementations never seem to learn the lessons of the past?

We know by now what makes KM work. We know the 7 secrets of success for KM, and the 7 most common reasons for failure. We know the principles, we know which KM strategies succeed and which ones fail.

So why is it a sad fact that so many KM implementations continue to fail?

Here are some potential reasons why this happens

  1. People who own KM initiatives are human beings, and as prone as other human beings to rush in without "learning before". So they reinvent the wheel yet again. That's why KM is needed in the first place - to influence people to value and to access and ro reuse knowledge, because this is not natural human behaviour; not even for the KM implementors.
  1. People are prone to the common fallacy that "we are different - the lessons of the past do not apply to us" (the "we are different" fallacy is one of the 5 most common objections that you have to face as a KMer). Sometimes this is expressed as "people these days (Gen Y, Gen Z, whatever) are different - the lessons of the past will not apply to them".  Still a fallacy I am afraid, though one that KMers are prone to as much as anyone else.
  1. KM is simple, but difficult. It is very tempting to go for a mixture of an easy option and wishful thinking, though the easy option will fail.  The illusion of knowledge is one that applies to all humans.
  1. People will offer you miracle solutions - usually technology solutions. "Buy our software, and knowledge will manage itself". In 20 years of knowledge management, technology has never been the solution (though it has always been part of the solution - about 25% of the framework is technology).  Believing that it will save you this time, is wishful thinking again.
  1. There is a lot of pressures from management to do KM on the cheap, quickly. and with minimal disruption. Unfortunately KM requires investment, it requires time, and (being a change process) causes disruption. You can fail quickly cheaply and non-disruptively, but you can't succeed. It's your job, as a KMer, to show management the investment of time and money that will be needed, and the value that KM will deliver in return. Be strong - make your case.
  1. Maybe you don't know which lessons to trust. There are many dissenting voices in KM, and many people who will tell you many different things. Currently KM has no "authoritative voice".  I am afraid all you can do here is look for the people with real experience, and learn from them.
Those of us who have been working with KM for over a decade (since '92 in my case, with BP for 7 years, then consulting) have a pretty good idea of how KM implementation can be done, and it is really frustrating seeing people jumping in and repeating the mistakes from the past. The collateral damage is that partial KM implementations, which deliver minor results then fizzle out, devalue KM, and spread a feeling that "KM doesn't work"

KM does work, when the KMers learn (and apply) the lessons from the past. The successes and the failures of past KM programs have generated a wealth of knowledge about the effective application and implementation of Knowledge Management. This is knowledge of huge value to you.

Use that Knowledge, ladies and gentlemen. Others have striven to generate that knowledge, so that you, if you can avoid the temptations listed above, can guarantee success.


Anonymous said...


Woven throughout your lists of seven, and here, is that KM requires the right culture. Without that, the processes and technologies won't be enough. And changing the culture is a big thing. If the top bosses aren't visibly engaged, well, good luck. If one were to do a root cause analysis of most KM failures, wouldn't it come down to absence of the right culture? If the KM'ers don't walk the walk, how can we expect more of the muggles? This is a core point.


Nick Milton said...

KM is a culture change process, Christian,and not every KM implementation starts from a supportive culture. Mt number one reason for failure is not treating KM as a change program, and my number 2 is not having the right people in place to drive change.

So a lack of attention to change management is at the root of many failed initiatives, but probably not all. KM can fail even when the culture is supportive.

Anonymous said...

Nick: slightly different point, I think. I am not sure I agree that at its core KM is a culture change process, although I would agree that for KM to flourish and grow, a change in culture is normally required. If the company's or team's culture is not one that puts a premium on sharing and learning from mistakes, but instead rewards hoarding and resists admitting mistakes, how could KM succeed? And culture is not really something that can be taught.

Agree that many initiatives fail because of insufficient attention on change management, which I normally associate with changing behaviors. And agree that KM can fail even when the culture is right.

But maybe it is just semantics. You certainly have done more of this with more varied audiences than I have.

Nick Milton said...

Christian - re "If the company's or team's culture is not one that puts a premium on sharing and learning from mistakes, but instead rewards hoarding and resists admitting mistakes, how could KM succeed?"

KM can only succeed in a case such as you describe, if the KM framework contains sufficient governance elements to change the drivers behind the culture. KM is not just about tools and processes - its about KM expectations, KM policies, KM performance management, rewards and sanctions (so that hoarding is punished, admitting mistakes is rewarded), and support.

This is part of KM implementation, and that's what I mean by saying "KM is about culture change".

You could argue that I really mean "KM is about behaviour change", but where behaviours lead, culture will follow.

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