Monday, 17 November 2014

The KM tool is not the KM system

When you say the word "system" to a group of people, a good proportion of them will interpret the word as meaning an IT system. But a knowledge management system is far more than an IT solution. It is about a way of working; a way of working systematically, to deliver the value tied up in the knowledge of your staff, your teams, your suppliers and your customers. 

This "System = Technology" was very clear in a client request I have been working with recently. "We want to introduce a learning culture" they said, "and we want a system for knowledge management", but when we started to interrogate what they wanted, they could not move beyond seeing the need for a technology tool.

For them, the tool was the system.

To take a different approach to understand the concept of "system", let's take an analogy for working systematically to deliver value.  Lets look at the financial management system.

Now I know money is not a strong analogy for knowledge. It is a lot more tangible for a start, and a lot more measurable, and everyone relates to it. But let's ignore for a moment the differences between the two, and instead compare the management systems that businesses apply to the management of money.

An analogy - a Financial management System

The systematic management of money requires a combination of people, processes, technology and culture. Nobody sees the words "Financial Management System" and think's it's an IT system - they know it has at least 4 components.

  • You will need people such as accountants, financial planners, commercial managers. 
  • You have a whole range of business processes like budgeting, financial tracking, auditing of accounts. 
  • No doubt you have software technology you use; from base-level spreadsheets to more elaborate enterprise-wide accounting solutions. You may be moving into ecommerce, and investing in technology to move money electronically. 
  • Finally you have governance, to drive a financially aware system. You have clear financial management policies and expectations. Your people understand that "money counts", they "watch the bottom line", they look for "bang for the buck". And every so often, you audit the management of money, to make sure it is being done systematically and well.
Your money management system works, because it is a holistic integration of people, process, technology and governance. These things have been about for so long we sometimes don’t recognise them as being components in the money system.

What about your knowledge management system? 

Does your knowledge management system have the same systemic and systematic elements?

  • Do you have the people? Do you have knowledge accountants, knowledge planners, knowledge managers? 
  • Do you have processes for knowledge tracking, or knowledge auditing? Do you budget for knowledge at the start of a project, in the same way you budget for money? 
  • Do you have the technologies you need at a local and enterprise-wide scale? 
  • What about your governance? Do people pay as much attention to knowledge as they do on money? They may know what they earn, but do they know what they learn? Are the company expectations for KM clear? And are they ever audited?

 Analogies can be pushed too far, but I think in this case a comparison of the two shows that a Knowledge Management system, if it is to succeed, needs to look at the holistic integration of people, process, technology and governance.

A Knowledge Management System is far more than just technology, and the Tool is not the System.


Frank Schipani said...

Here's an even simpler analogy for attorneys. Just because you have Microsoft Word installed on all the firm's computers, does this mean you don't need attorneys to draft legal documents anymore?

Nick Milton said...

Good analogy Frank, thanks!

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